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New 

Scientist 


WEEKLY August 22-28, 201 5 


WORKOUTS THAT 
MAKE YOU SMARTER 

Tone your body, 
tune your mind 

SHOCK THERAPY 

Saving birds by 
electrocuting them 

PRINT YOUR OWN 
SPACECRAFT 

Orbiting assembly line 
awaits your orders 


THE WRONG STUFF 

Remix ordinary matter, 
and very odd things happen 



A QUESTION OF 
LIFE AND DEATH 

Biology starts answering questions psychiatry can't 

Science and technology news www.newscientist.com Faculty opportunities 


No3035 US$5.95 CAN$S.95 



I 




After handshakes, we sniff 
people’s scent on our hand 


After handshakes, we sniff our hand 


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Th* = 1-- rik fisi hindfti«i«s r:v - r - . 


You won't believe you do it, but you do* 
After shaking hands with someone, youll 
lift your hands to your face and take a deep 
sniff. This newly discovered behaviour - 
revealed by covert filming - suggests that 
much like other mammals, humans use 
bodily smells to convey information. 

We know that women's tears transmit 
chemosensory signals - their scent lowers 
tosterone levels and dampens arousal in 


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CONTENTS 


Volume 227 No 3035 


This issue online 

newscientist.com/issue/3035 


News 

8 

Print your own 
spacecraft 

Orbiting assembly line 
awaits your orders 




On the cover 

28 

The wrong stuff 

Remix ordinary matter, 
and very odd things 
happen 


Cover image 

Simon Danaher 


32 Smart workouts 

Tone your body, 
tune your mind 

12 Shock therapy 

Saving birds by 
electrocuting them 

8 Print me a spacecraft 

Orbiting assembly line 
awaits your orders 
10 Life and death 

Biology starts answering 
psychiatry's guestions 


New 

Sdentlst 



THE WRONG STUFF 

Hanitx DnJniTY rratlar, 
ind ftrf odd ttingi hippin 



AgUESTtON OF 
UFE AND DCATH 

arBJk&idn^ quecUani 


Features 

32 

Workouts that 
make you smarter 

Tone your body, 
tune your mind 



Coming next week... 


Leader 

5 Modern biology is opening a new door 
on mental illness 

News 

6 UPFRONT 

UK doctors to be punished for overprescribing 
antibiotics. Rosetta's comet reaches closest 
point to the sun, Glaciers in trouble 

8 THIS WEEK 

Californian condors' shocking recovery. CO^ 
could keep fracking's leaks in check. World's 
oldest mass torture site. Fate of spider cities 
hangs on personalities. Medical e-spliff goes 
on sale in UK, Flints of new boson at LFIC 
10 SPECIAL REPORT 

Blood test can predict someone's chances 
of attempting suicide 
18 IN8RIEF 

Disco clams' light show is about stayin' 
alive. Magnetic harnesses realign planets 

Technology 

20 Mass outrage at the click of a mouse. 
Eavesdropping app turns your phone into 
your PA, Riseof the Al sports coach 

Aperture 

24 The serene side of Canada's oil sands 

Opinion 

26 Don't let fear win Time to junk our distrust 
of nuclear energy, says Geraldine Thomas 

26 Fat fad Dariush Mozaffarian and David 
Ludwig on bad myths about good fat 

27 One minute with... Ariel Procaccia I back 
Al to make the world fairer, not terminate it 

Features 

28 The wrong Stuff (see above left) 

32 Workouts that make you smarter 

(see left) 

38 Get lucky Science is full of chance finds, 
but can you make your own luck? 

CultureLab 

42 Game power You can lose yourself 
completely in gaming - even your life 
44 Through the bars The 21st-century zoo is 
an infuriating, conflicted yet amazing place 



reed business 
informabon 


^recycle 

ii ... . ■ 


Into the unknown 

Discoveries beyond the iimits of the human mind 

Ennui? 

Boredom is more stimuiating than you expect 


Regulars 

54 LETTERS Giving birth under pressure 

56 FEED8ACK Computerised yoga mats 

57 THE LAST WORD Hazy blaze 


22 August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 3 



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A different way of thinking 

Biological studies are revealing psychiatry in a new light, says Thomas Insel 


A REVOLUTION is under way 
in psychiatry. The science 
underpinning this discipline 
has in the past shifted from 
psychology to pharmacology, and 
now it is changing again. We are 
starting to build it on genomics 
and neuroscience, thanks to 
advances in DNA sequencing 
and functional imaging. 

The next decade should see 
all of these strands intertwined 
into a more holistic approach. 
People are beginning to 
recognise that depression and 
schizophrenia, for example, 
are brain disorders related to 
physiological changes rather 
than simply behavioural ones. 

What does it mean to think of 
mental illnesses in this way? Is 
psychiatry really just part of 
neurology? Many disorders of 
neurology, such as stroke, involve 
damage to a specific site in the 
brain. But psychiatric disorders 
may be more usefully thought 
of as brain circuit problems - 
what researchers have called 
“connectopathies”. You could 
make an analogy with heart 
conditions. The behaviour and 
ways of thinking seen in a mental 
illness are symptoms of an 
underlying disorder in a brain 
circuit - a brain “arrhythmia”, but 
a straight neurological disorder 
would be more like a heart attack. 

Teething problems 

The problem is that even though 
there have been thousands of 
studies looking for biological 
markers of mental health 
problems such as depression or 
schizophrenia, none has proven 
clinically actionable. And, in truth, 
little has been replicable even 
in a research setting. So some 
psychiatrists understandably 



PROFILE 

Thomas Insel is director of the US 
National Institute of Mental Health 
and a member of the US National 
Academy of Medicine 

reason that this approach offers 
no advantage, but large costs. 

This is premature. Consider the 
recent history of cancer research. 
More than a decade ago, doctors 
realised that they needed to 
reconsider their diagnostic 
approach. Molecular genetics 
has revealed that tumours once 
labelled as “breast cancer” or 
“lung cancer” are actually many 
different forms. Traditional 
diagnostic criteria - such as what a 
tumour looks like or its location - 
lacked the precision to select the 
best treatment for each form. 
Better diagnosing information 
based on biomarkers is now 
allowing better treatment 
and prognosis for patients. 

A similar process has just begun 
in psychiatry, with one of the 
vanguards being the US National 
Institute of Mental Health’s 
Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) 
project, which aims to collect 
genomic, cellular, imaging, social 
and behavioural information on 
large numbers of people with 
what are often termed “mental 
disorders”. Rather than trying to 


map this on to the behaviourally 
defined categories that clinical 
psychiatry uses, RDoC will ask 
the data to define the categories, 
just as scientists have done with 
cancer. We already consider 
“depression”, “schizophrenia” 
and “autism” as more than single 
conditions; perhaps a decade 
hence, biological and other 
qualifiers will be essential to 
identify a specific condition 
and the best way to deal with it. 

One example is recent work 
on suicidality. Researchers have 
found biomarkers for suicidal 
behaviour that seem significant 
across many of the current 
diagnostic categories of mental 
illness (see page lo). In addition, 
studies of psychosis, mood 
disorders and developmental 
disorders are beginning to 
deconstruct those groups by 
using biomarkers and innovative 
tests of cognition, which may 
prove to be the most powerful 
biomarker for such conditions. 

Tectonic shift 

Objective diagnostic categories 
that are reliable and biologically 
valid are long overdue in this field. 
For people under 50, psychiatric 
disorders cause more disability, 
have higher mortality rates and 
incur greater costs than any other 
group of disorders. If the path to 
better outcomes in cancer and 
other medical specialities 
requires precision medicine, then 
certainly the best hope for easing 
the morbidity, mortality and cost 
of psychiatric conditions will be to 
develop tests to identify precise 
diagnostic groups within what 
we now call mental disorders. 

Such a tectonic shift could 
ultimately improve the lives of 
many millions of people. ■ 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 5 



UPFRONT 


Antibiotic crackdown 


"NO, I'M sorry, but you'll get better 
without antibiotics." That's what 
family doctors in the UK are being 
told to say to those with minor 
ailments who demand the drugs. 

If they don't, the doctors risk 
disciplinary action that could 
culminate in them being struck off. 

The move is part of a push by 
the UK National Institute for Health 
and Care Excellence (NICE) to cut 
antibiotic prescriptions. Of 40 million 
made in the UK last year, it estimates 
that 10 million were unnecessary. 

The Royal College of General 
Practitioners says family doctors 
come under intense pressure from 
pushy people to prescribe antibiotics. 
NICE acknowledges this and says it 
plans to publish further material next 
year to help convince the public that 


overuse of antibiotics imperils the 
future of medicine. Their overuse 
leads to bacteria becoming resistant, 
and the drugs ineffective. "The public 
have as much responsibility as any 
family doctor to understand that 
sometimes the doctor knows best," 
says a NICE spokeswoman. 

If doctors who dramatically 
overprescribe continue to do so, 
they could face a referral to the 
UK General Medical Council, a body 
that censures doctors. However, 
this would remain the last option. 
"That's absolutely the end of the 
line," says the NICE spokeswoman. 

The new guidance includes 
recommendations such as issuing 
"delayed prescriptions" that people are 
advised not to redeem unless a minor 
ailment lasts more than a few days. 



Comet milestone 



HAPPY anniversary Rosetta. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) 
spacecraft recently completed its 
first year in orbit around comet 
GyP/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. 
On 13 August, it accompanied the 
comet at its closest approach to 
the sun, or perihelion. 

“It’s really a fantastic milestone 
that’s been achieved by our 
Rosetta today,” said ESA project 
scientist Nicolas Altobelli in a 
Google hangout to mark the 
occasion. It’s the first time a 


"Every day you could fill 
10 Olympic swimming 
pools with water coming 
off the warming comet" 

spacecraft has monitored a comet 
up close as it moves from being 
dormant to heated activity. 

Over the past year, the comet’s 
surface has gradually warmed. 
The amount of water streaming 
off 67P has increased a thousand 
times since Rosetta’s arrival, 
says Holger Sierks, who oversees 
Rosetta’s main camera. “Every 


day you could fill 10 Olympic 
swimming pools,” he says. 

These watery outbursts take 
cometary material along for the 
ride. On 30 july the team observed 
a chunk, possibly 1 metre across, 
flying off the comet. “It’s great to 
see this for the first time ever,” 
says Sierks. 

Perihelion has also changed 
the levels of different molecules 
streaming off 67P, says loel 
Parker of the Southwest Research 
Institute in Boulder, Colorado. 

Even at perihelion, 67P and 
Rosetta were still 186 million 
kilometres from the sun. Eor 
comparison. Earth gets about 
40 million kilometres closer in. 

The change in illumination as 
the sun switches sides relative 
to the comet means the team 
has been able to map its entire 
surface, including regions that 
were previously dark. 

It’s not all celebrations, though, 
as the mission team is still trying 
to make contact with the Philae 
lander. They have had no signal 
from it for more than a month 
now. “It is quite worrying for us,” 
said Philae operations engineer 
Barbara Cozzoni. 


Food shocks ahead 

THE forecast for food looks grim. 
The risk of extreme weather events 
causing global “food shocks” is 
set to rise sharply unless we make 
our systems more resilient. 

Climate change means that 
by 2050, crop failures linked to 
extreme weather that currently 
happen once in a century could 
instead happen every 10 years, 
according to a report from the UK 
Global Eood Security programme. 

The report is based on past 
observations, interviews with 


experts, as well as climate and 
crop computer models. It finds 
that food production will become 
more variable. In addition, it says, 
there are “pinch points” in our 
transport systems, such as big 
ports and the Suez canal in Egypt, 
that could make any crisis worse 
if they were disrupted by extreme 
weather or instability. 

“If the UK lost its east-coast 
ports because of a storm surge, 
we’d be in deep doo-doo whichever 
way you cut it,” says Tim Benton 
of the University of Leeds, UK, 
one of the authors of the report. 


Chemical catastrophe 


WHAT caused the enormous 
chemical blasts that ripped through 
the Chinese port of Tianjin last week? 
On Tuesday the Chinese government 
launched an investigation to find out. 

The official chemical inventory of 
the warehouse where the fire started 
has yet to be recovered. Despite this, 
clues are emerging. Sodium cyanide 
has been found in water samples 
at almost 30 times the legally safe 
concentration. Calcium carbide, used 
in the manufacture of PVC, was 


reportedly stored in the warehouse 
and could also be a culprit, saysjoe 
Eades of Ispahan Engineering in 
Singapore. If it had been leaking, 
water from sprinklers turned on 
accidentally may have reacted with 
it to produce enough acetylene, a 
flammable gas, for a sizeable fire. 

Eades says that ammonium and 
potassium nitrate, used in fertilisers, 
are also thought to have been there. 
These would have exploded when 
exposed to the blazing acetylene. 



6 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 


JAMES KING-HOLMES/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY 


For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news 


60 SECONDS 


Switch off, kill pest 

SPRAY away? Pesticides that 
work by tinkering with gene 
expression in the pest without 
modifying crop genes could get 
around regulations on genetic 
modification. The technology 


"This technology could 
allow the development of 
a whole new generation 
of agrichemicals" 

is based on a process called RNA 
interference and maybe ready 
within the next five years. 

In lune, researchers at Cornell 
University in Ithaca, New York, 
showed that an RNA spray can 
kill the Colorado potato beetle, 
protecting potato plants for more 
than 28 days {Pest Management 
Science, doi.org/6vs). “This is a 
technology that could allow the 
development of a whole new 
generation of agrichemicals,” 
says David Baulcombe of the 
University of Cambridge. 

Industry is taking notice. 
Monsanto hopes to have an RNA 
spray ready by 2020 that will 
tackle potato beetles resistant to 
many other types of pesticide. 
Because this approach silences 
genes but does not introduce 
heritable changes into the 
genome, it may not be regulated 
as a GM product. “In effect these 
are chemical pesticides, they 
just happen to be RNA,” says 
Baulcombe. 



Apocalyptic aftermath 



Doomed glaciers 

GLACIERS are disappearing faster 
than at any time since records 
began 100 years ago. Many of 
those in central Asia could be 
gone by 2050. 

The Celestial mountains of 
central Asia, also called the Tien 
Shan range, have lost 27 per cent 
of their glacier mass since 1961, 
thanks to rising summer 
temperatures. They could lose 
a further half of what remains 
by 2050, according to research 

"The first decade of 
21st century saw the 
greatest loss of glacier 
ice ever measured" 

by Daniel Farinotti of the Swiss 
Federal Institute for Forest, 

^ Snow and Landscape Research in 
I Birmensdorf (Nature Geoscience, 
^ doi.org/6vp). 

I The impact on farmers could 
^ be immense, as meltwater from 
I the glaciers supplies the Fergana 
"" valley, one of the largest irrigated 
areas on Earth. “It’s like a huge 
water tower,” says Farinotti. 

An equally gloomy picture 
is painted by another study 
published this month, which 
looked at the fate of glaciers 
globally over the past century. 
The rate of melting has been 
accelerating, and in the decade 
from 2001 to 2010, glaciers lost 


on average 75 centimetres of their 
thickness each year {Journal of 
Glaciology, doi.org/6vq). 

“The first decade of the 21st 
century saw the greatest decadal 
loss of glacier ice ever measured,” 
says lead author Michael Zemp 
of the World Glacier Monitoring 
Service at the University of 
Zurich, Switzerland. “It’s without 
precedent.” 


Museum raid 

YOU won’t find that in the gift 
shop. NASA is raiding retired space 
shuttles housed in museums for 
spare parts, with the intention 
of launching them to the 
International Space Station. 

The last space shuttle flight was 
in 2011, and the four remaining 
shuttles were sent to museums 
around the US. This week, NASA 
engineers are removing four 
water storage tanks from the 
space shuttle Endeavour, which 
is currently housed at the 
California Science Center in Los 
Angeles. In May NASA took the 
same tanks from the space shuttle 
Atlantis, which is on display at the 
Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

NASA hopes the tanks could 
be combined into a water storage 
system for the ISS. “Using the 
shuttle tanks could greatly reduce 
the overall cost to build the new 
system,” says NASA spokesman 
Daniel Ffout. 


Islamic climate call 

Islamic leaders from ZO countries 
are calling for the world's 1.6 billion 
Muslims to act on climate change, 
and for governments to phase out 
fossil fuels by Z050. The declaration 
was adopted at the International 
Islamic Climate Change Symposium 
this week and presents a moral case 
forfighting climate change based on 
Islamicteachings. 


Gliding spiders skydive 

Jungle spiders fall with style. 
Selenops spiders from Panama and 
Peru quickly adopt a stable posture 
akin to that of skydivers, and then 
use their forelegs to steer. It isthe 
first time spiders have been seen 
gliding {Journal of the Royal Society 
/nte//oce, 001:10.1098/ 
rsif.2015.0534). 


Smart mice are fearless 

See how they don't run. Cat urine 
holds no fear for mice with disrupted 
production of a brain enzyme linked 
to bipolar disorder. And to boot 
they are brainier, outperforming 
ordinary mice on standard cognition 
tests. The work could lead to drugs 
that reduce cognitive decline 
( Neuropsychopharmacology, 
doi.org/6vr). 


Making CO2 pay 

Getting rid of the carbon dioxide in 
our atmosphere could be profitable. 
In a process described at this week's 
American Chemical Society meeting 
in Boston, the carbon from piped-in 
airwas spun into valuable carbon 
nanofibres - the raw materials used 
to build strong composites such as 
those used in aircraft and sports cars. 


Spanish mess 

DNA in dog faeces could land owners 
in trouble in the Spanish city of 
Tarragona. Authorities are thinking 
of creating a DNA database of 
registered dogs to allow them to 
identify owners who fail to clear up. 
Such schemes already operate in 
some upmarket neighbourhoods 
in the US. 


ZZ August Z015 1 NewScientist 1 7 


THIS WEEK 


Print your own satellite - in space 

Soon anyone could be an armchair astronaut finds Jacob Aron 


IT’S A Thursday night and you’re 
bored, so you launch an app on 
your smartphone. A crisp view of 
Earth as seen from space pops up, 
and you start flying around. 
Moments later, your friend logs 
on and joins you in formation. 

But this isn’t a video game - 
you’re piloting a real spacecraft. 

This vision is pie in the sky 
for now, but it could be possible in 
the near future thanks to efforts 
bringing manufacturing and 
consumer services to orbit, 
enabled by 3D printing, robotics 
and virtual reality. Welcome to 
400 kilometres up, where 
business is booming. 

‘‘We want people to be thinking 
they can actually use space. It’s 


"We want people to think 
they can actually use 
space. It's not just for 
billion-dollar companies" 

not just for governments and 
billion-dollar companies,” says 
Brad Kohlenberg of Made In 
Space, a Californian firm building 
3D printers for use in orbit. 

Made In Space is on the crest 
of a wave of private companies 
trying to get consumer space 
technology off the ground. They 
launched their first printer to the 
International Space Station last 
year, where NASA used it to print 
a wrench from a design that was 
emailed from Earth. Later this 
year, the company plans to launch 
a more advanced printer that will 
allow anyone on the ground to 
build things in orbit. 

The great advantage of 
manufacturing on the ISS is 
cutting down on launches, which 
are the riskiest part of any orbital 
endeavour. CubeSats - small, 
standardised satellites that have 
seen a boom in popularity in 
recent years - are used to do small 



Assembled by astronauts 


8 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 


In this section 

■ Californian condors' shocking recovery, page 12 

■ World's oldest mass torture site, page 14 

■ Rise of the Al sports coach, page 22 


Building blocks 


CubeSats are small satellites built from standardised parts. Private companies 
are planning to manufacture them in space, storing electronic components 
on the International Space Station and 3D printing the frame on demand 


CIRCUIT BOARDS, SENSORS 
AND OTHER ELECTRONICS 


BATTERIES 


SOLAR PANELS 


FRAME (orange), will be 3D-printed 
in plastic on the ISS 



experiments by everyone from 
governments to schoolchildren. 
They hitch a ride on rockets 
launching larger spacecraft, 
or get transported to the ISS 
on a cargo ship, where they are 
deployed by a robotic arm in one 
of the station's airlocks. But in the 
past year, three uncrewed rockets 
bound for the ISS have failed on 
launch, taking out dozens of 
CubeSats in the process. "Getting 
to orbit is an issue for them at 
the moment," says Greg Sadlier, 
space analyst at consultancy firm 
London Economics. 

Made In Space has a solution 
specifically for CubeSats. 
Partnering with Texas firm 
NanoRacks, which helps deploy 
CubeSats on the ISS, the company 
plans to offer a service called 
"stash and deploy" that will allow 
customers to build in orbit 
starting in 2016. "The stash and 
deploy model could bypass the 
risk," Sadlier says. 

The idea is to store many 
standard parts on the ISS, such as 
batteries, solar panels and sensors. 
When a customer places an order. 
Made In Space will print a plastic 
frame, and an astronaut will snap 
everything together before 
launching it out of the station 
(see "Building blocks", right). 
"We're developing technologies 
that can start pumping satellites 
out of a platform orbiting Earth," 
says Kohlenberg. 

On demand 

The strategy could also get 
CubeSats into orbit more quickly. 
Currently, owners have to wait to 
piggyback on the launch of bigger, 
more expensive spacecraft, which 
are often delayed. "Right now it's 
months to years after you've built 
something and have it ready to go 
to space," says Kohlenberg. Using 
3D printing skips that wait. "You 
can imagine hackathons where 
people are designing spacecraft 
and have them operating in space 
over a weekend." 

But space explorers are busy 
people, and can't spend all day 


assembling satellites. So Made In 
Space and NanoRacks eventually 
want to build an uncrewed space 
station to manufacture satellites 
automatically. "When you look 
five years out, it's clear to me that 
with 3D printing and robotics, 
uncrewed platforms will be able 
to deploy on demand," says 
NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. 

At the moment NanoRacks 
charges around $85,000 to 
launch a CubeSat built on Earth, 
but automation and the ability 
to launch on demand should 
make the space-built kind 
much cheaper and create new 
possibilities. Customers could 
order a satellite to fly over and 
image an area just hit by a natural 
disaster, says Manber, but he also 
envisions more light-hearted 
services like beaming messages 
around the world. 

Another Californian firm, 
SpaceVR, hopes to be the first to 
provide space-based 
entertainment to the public by 
putting a virtual reality camera 
on the ISS. It plans to sell a Netflix- 


style monthly subscription to VR 
movies from orbit, viewable on a 
smartphone or headset. The goal 
is to give ordinary people a chance 
to feel the "overview effect" - the 
transformative experience that 


'It would give ordinary 
people the transformative 
experience of seeing Earth 
from space in real time" 

astronauts report after seeing 
Earth from space. "The idea is to 
bring that to everyone in a cost 
effective, scalable way," says CEO 
Ryan Holmes. 

SpaceVR plans to send the 
electronics for its VR device to the 
ISS on a cargo ship, but will work 
with Made In Space to 3D print the 
housing in orbit. That means the 
camera as a whole doesn't have to 
be built to survive the stresses of 
launch, saving money on costly 
launch-proof materials like 
titanium. "It just made more 
sense to start manufacturing in 
space," says chief technology 
officer Isaac DeSouza. 


Kohlenberg thinks others 
will find similar benefits once 
their satellite deployment 
platform is complete. "You can 
imagine spaceships and satellites 
the likes of which we have never 
seen, because you've always had 
to build for the launch vehicle," 
he says. "Now we can build 
whatever we want." 

Holmes says SpaceVR also 
wants to develop a range of 
consumer products. "We are going 
to develop CubeSats that people 
can log in to and control from 
their computer or cellphone," 
he says. Squadrons of up to eight 
satellites could let you fly around 
with your friends and view Earth 
from space in real time, suggests 
DeSouza. "This is the next phase 
of space exploration," he says. 

It remains to be seen whether 
consumers are truly ready to 
embrace space. Space VR is looking 
to raise half a million dollars on 
Kickstarter. "Space technology is 
quite esoteric, consumers don't 
know they want or need it yet 
because they don't understand 
what's possible," says Sadlier. 

And before any of that. Made 
In Space and NanoRacks will need 
to demonstrate that they can 
successfully manufacture in orbit. 
Such mass production of small 
satellites will also raise concerns 
about space debris, and the 
possibility of Gravity-style 
collisions that could take out larger 
spacecraft. CubeSats orbiting 
Earth don't hang around forever, 
they lose altitude and burn up in 
the atmosphere fairly quickly, but 
the companies acknowledge it's 
something they need to take into 
account. "It's an issue that needs 
to be studied to make sure we 
don't start banging in to each 
other up there," says Manber. 

Still, Made In Space and 
NanoRacks are confident 
their time has come. "It will be 
a surprise to someone in 2015 
what we'II be able to do in space 
in 2020," says Manber. "We're 
finally at the start line, and it is 
going to be a very exciting couple 
of years." ■ 


ZZ August 2015 I NewScientist 1 9 


SPECIAL REPORT MENTAL HEALTH 



Suicide in the blood 

A blood test can reveal when people are thinking of killing themselves. 
This is groundbreaking news, but how useful will it be, asks Sally Adee 


CAN you spot whether someone is 
likely to try to take their own life? 
In hindsight, it can seem obvious, 
but at the time, doctors and 
relatives rarely have much more 
than intuition to go on. Now a 
blood test could help doctors 
identify those most at risk. The 
idea marks a shift in diagnostic 
approaches to mental health, 
and has drawn criticism from 
some psychiatrists. 

Nearly a million people 
worldwide take their own lives 
each year. Prevention efforts have 
done little to curb suicide rates in 
most countries, in part because 


it is often so difficult to tell if 
someone is planning to do it. 

Chemicals in the blood may 
provide a much-needed clue. 
Alexander Niculescu of Indiana 
University in Indianapolis and 
his colleagues have developed 
a questionnaire and blood test 
that together predicted with 
92 per cent accuracy who among 
a group of 108 men receiving 
psychiatric treatment would 
develop suicidal feelings 
over the next year (Molecular 
Psychiatry, doi.org/6vk). 
Preliminary evidence suggests 
the test also works for women. 


Because only about 16 in every 
100,000 people end their own 
lives, a test with such a level of 
accuracy will give many false 
positive and false negative results 
if used on the general population. 
But it could prove useful for 
people who are already having 
psychiatric care, especially 
those who are addicted to drugs, 
incarcerated or have a family 
history of suicide, all of which 


"Those who are serious 
about taking their own 
lives are least likely to 
reveal it or seek help" 


are known suicide risk factors. 

Although many factors like 
these are identified after a person 
kills themself, none are predictive. 
While 90 per cent of people 
who kill themselves have been 
diagnosed with depression, 
only 2 per cent of people with 
depression kill themselves. 

'‘Those who are serious about 
taking their own lives are often 
the least likely to reveal it and 
seek help,” says Gustavo Turecki 
at McGill University in Montreal, 
Canada. 

A test that can spot suicidal 
intentions without relying on self- 
disclosure would help doctors to 
start preventative measures, such 
as putting someone on suicide 
watch. This typically involves 
preventing someone from leaving 
hospital, confiscating potentially 
hazardous items and continually 
monitoring behaviour. Research 
shows that suicide attempters can 


10 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 


For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news 


be dissuaded from trying again, 
so the test might tell who could 
benefit from receiving such 
intervention before they have 
even tried to take their life. 

To develop the test, over several 
years Niculescu’s team took blood 
samples from 217 men undergoing 
various psychiatric treatments. 
They compared changes in gene 
expression in 37 of them who 
developed suicidal feelings with 


"When someone comes to 
hospital with an injury or 
an overdose, it can be hard 
to tell if it was on purpose" 

previously published work 
and with post-mortem samples 
of 26 men who had killed 
themselves. They identified 
11 gene changes that could be 
biological markers for spotting 
people who might be considering 
suicide (see “Changing of 
the genes”, right), and they 
monitored these same markers 
in a test group of 108 men with 
psychiatric conditions. 

They combined the blood 
test data with an app that asks 
questions designed to detect 
suicidal intentions, and 
predicted with 92 per cent 
accuracy who of a group of men 
receiving psychiatric treatment 
would develop suicidal feelings 
over the following year - and with 
71 per cent accuracy who would 
be hospitalised by an attempt. 

“They were able to guess the 
future for hundreds of people,” 
says Zachary Kaminsky of lohns 
Hopkins University in Baltimore, 
Maryland. “This is top-notch.” 

Linking biomarkers to mental 
health is a controversial topic. 
Since 2010, the US National 
Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 
has been increasingly funding 
studies like these, which look for 
biological markers or changes in 
the body when someone shows 
certain psychiatric symptoms, 
regardless of what their 
psychiatric diagnosis might be. 

This marks a move away from 
studies that use the diagnostic 


categories defined by the 
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 
of Mental Disorders, such as 
depression, bipolar disorder or 
schizophrenia, a system that has 
been criticised for relying on the 
subjective assessments of doctors 
rather than clinical tests. 

While mortality linked to 
physiological conditions like 
cardiac disease has fallen, suicide 
rates are at an all-time high across 
all age groups in the US. In the UK, 
rates have been rising steadily 
since 2007, and similar trends are 
seen in other countries. The desire 
to have psychiatry benefit from 
biological advances in the same 
way as the rest of medicine is 
why the NIMH has changed its 
approach. But the shift towards 
detecting biomarkers by 
neuroimaging or monitoring gene 
expression has drawn criticism. 

“The NIMH is funding 
biomarker porn,” says lames 
Coyne of University Medical 
Center in Groningen, the 
Netherlands. “It’s airbrushed, 
heavily edited, and you can’t 
replicate it at home.” 

Coyne’s view is shaped by 
the small sample sizes used in 
early mental health biomarker 
research - something that can be 
problematic for rare conditions. 

“It is extremely unlikely that 
a few genes are going to be able 
to predict risk for suicidality. It 
certainly won’t in all cases,” says 
Emil Coccaro of the University 


CHANGING OF THE GENES 

The activity of 11 genes seems to 
change when someone is thinking 
about committing suicide, according 
to work by Alexander Niculescu of 
Indiana University in Indianapolis 
and his colleagues (see main story). 

Knowing the function of these 
genes could help us understand 
the biology behind this behaviour. 

One of the genes is called SKA2, 
which indirectly affects the workings 
of the hypothalamic-pituitary- 
adrenal axis, a network of brain 
systems that is implicated in 


of Chicago. He is concerned that 
when biomarkers are used, other 
factors are ignored, such as what 
is happening in a person’s life. 
Biomarkers may help you 
understand risk factors, but 
predicting subsequent behaviour 
is more difficult, says Turecki. 

Hospital help 

Niculescu’s test has already 
proved successful where it 
would be used most - in hospitals. 
There, people are at a higher 
risk of suicide than the general 
population. Niculescu and his 
team found the test was especially 
predictive for people with bipolar 
disorder, predicting with 98 per 
cent accuracy which of them 
would develop suicidal thoughts, 
and with 94 per cent accuracy who 



emergency 

I II PHONE 

AND 

I CRISIS 
XXJNSEUNG 


impulsive and negative thoughts. 
When this gene's activity is turned 
down, the HPA axis becomes 
hyperactive, leading to runaway 
thoughts. Overactivity of this brain 
area has been repeatedly linked to 
suicide attempts. 

Another of the genes, SLC4A4, 
is involved in regulating the pH of 
the brain, which has been linked to 
anxiety and panic attacks. It could be 
that in some cases, strong suicidal 
thoughts are similar to impulsive 
panic attacks, says Niculescu. 


would make an attempt serious 
enough to require hospitalisation. 
“It could be used as a screening 
instrument,” says Niculescu. 

“If somebody scored highly, they 
could be followed more closely, 
be hospitalised longer, their 
medications added or changed.” 

“It’s really a groundbreaking 
study,” says Bruce Cuthbert, who 
oversees the NIMH’s push for 
biology-based diagnostics. He 
thinks a combination of an app 
and a blood test could be useful 
in emergency room settings - for 
example, to help determine 
whether an incident was likely 
to have been a suicide attempt. 
“Sometimes someone appears 
following an injury or an 
overdose,” says Cuthbert. “Was it 
an accident or did they do it on 
purpose?” Emergency doctors 
often have very little to go on 
in making such a judgement. 

Niculescu wants to extend 
his tests to the general public, 
but Kaminsky says the low 
rate of suicide in the general 
population would mean too 
many false alarms. 

Regardless of whether these 
tests are used, the discovery of 
biomarkers is important for 
people who are suicidal but are 
dismissed by others as being 
lazy or lacking discipline, says 
Cuthbert. “It validates their sense 
that they have a real illness.” ■ 


See also Leader, page 5 


ZZ August 2015 I NewScientist 1 11 



JOHN CANCALOSI / NATUREPL 


THIS WEEK 



California condor's 
shocking recovery 


Penny Sarchet 

IT SHOULD be hard to miss 
California condors - they are 
North America’s largest birds, 
with wingspans of up to 3 metres. 
But lead poisoning from gun 
ammunition nearly drove them 
to extinction in the 1980s. 

Now, electric shock training 
and surgery are helping to 
re-establish these giant birds. 

In the late 1980s, the last few 
individuals were taken from the 
wild to be bred in captivity. Since 
1992, there have been multiple 
reintroductions to the wild, and 
there are now more than 150 
flying over California and nearby 
Arizona, Utah and Baja in Mexico. 

But to sustain themselves in 
the wild, condors have to survive 
for long enough to reproduce. 
Condors take five to six years to 
reach maturity, and usually don’t 
successfully raise young until 
they have themselves been flying 
in the wild for seven years. 

Electrical cables and lead 
poisoning have been killing them 
off too early. “As they go in to land 


at a carcass, or to roost for the 
night, they just don’t see the 
power lines,” says Bruce Rideout 
of San Diego Zoo. Their wings can 
bridge the gap between cables, 
resulting in electrocution if they 
touch two lines at once. 

So conservationists have come 
up with a shocking solution. The 
condors are caught several times 
a year for monitoring and health 
screening, when they also receive 
cable aversion training. Artificial 


"As they go in to land at 
a carcass, or to roost for 
the night, they just don't 
see the power lines" 

utility poles, placed in large 
training pens, teach the birds to 
stay clear of cables by giving them 
a painful electric shock. Before 
the training was introduced, 

66 per cent of released birds died 
of electrocution. This has now 
dropped to 18 per cent (Biological 
Conservation, doi.org/6tb). 

Lead poisoning has proved 
more difficult to deal with. When 
condors eat carcasses containing 


lead ammunition, they absorb 
large quantities of the element. 
This affects their nervous systems 
and fertility, and can lead to 
kidney failure and death. 

A partial ban on the use of 
such ammunition throughout 
the condor’s range in 2008 
seems to have had little effect 
(PNAS, doi.org/6tc). So condors 
with high levels of lead are sent to 
Los Angeles Zoo, where they are 
injected with calcium EDTA, a 
chemical that purges lead from 
the blood over several days. 

They may also get treatment to 
regurgitate ingested lead, and if 
necessary, surgery, says Myra 
Finkelstein at the University of 
California, Santa Cruz. 

This work is starting to pay off. 
In 2000, the annual mortality rate 
for adult condors was 38 per cent, 
but between 2001 and 2011, this 
dropped to an average of 5.4 per 
cent - just shy of the 5.3 per cent 
thought to be needed for 
populations to become stable. 

Rideout’s team estimates that 
the California condors’ average 
survival time in the wild is 
now just under eight years. 
“Although these measures are not 
sustainable indefinitely, they are 
essential for now,” he says. “They 
are truly magnificent birds that 
are worth every effort we put into 
recovering them.” ■ 


CO2 could keep 
fracking's leaky 
side in check 

SOMETIMES two problems can cancel 
each other out. Carbon dioxide 
emissions from power plants could be 
put to good use, preventing fracking 
chemicals from contaminating 
drinking water supplies. 

Although fracking has unlocked 
new fuel sources and slashed energy 
prices, there is a risk that toxic 
compounds in the fracking fluid can 
get into shallow aquifers via fractures 
in the bedrock. 

Andres Clarens at the University of 
Virginia in Charlottesville and his team 
say pumping CO^ into the wells could 
prevent this. At the high temperatures 
and pressures found at depth, it reacts 
with silicate minerals in rocks to form 
a carbonate deposit. 

In the lab, the team has mimicked 
conditions in the Marcellus shale, a 
vast hive of fracking activity beneath 
New York state and Pennsylvania. 
They found that half of the CO2 injected 
in their experimental simulation was 
converted into solid carbonates within 
a day. The same would have happened 
to the rest before it could leak out 
to the surface, says Clarens, who 
presented the work this week at the 
Goldschmidt conference in Prague, 
the Czech Republic. 

The technology for injecting CO^ 
into rocks already exists, says Clarens, 
and models suggest that shale has an 
enormous capacity for storing it. 

The idea is fascinating, says Richard 
Davies, a petroleum geologist at 
Newcastle University in the UK - but 
unnecessary. "Fractures rarely extend 
past a few hundred metres above the 
shale reservoir," he says. 

But Clarens says fracking fluids 
could theoretically leak into aquifers, 
because the wells must be dug 
through shallow layers where the 
aquifers lie in order to reach shales. 

"There is great potential for this 
technology to help improve the 
integrity of well bores," says Clarens. 

"I think that will go a long way toward 
improving public perception of 
fracking." Colin Barras ■ 


12 1 NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



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THIS WEEK 


Mass slaughter in 
Stone-Age Europe 



Andy Coghlan 

WHOEVER the assailants were, 
they probably arrived at dawn. 
Catching their victims unawares, 
they hacked the shin bones of as 
many villagers as possible to 
prevent them escaping, then 
bludgeoned them to death with 
blows to the head before dumping 
them in a mass grave. 

Though no one can be certain 
what happened to the 26 people 
whose bodies were found in a 
Stone-Age mass grave, this is 
the most likely scenario, says 
Christian Meyer of the University 
of Mainz in Germany. His team 
analysed the bones, unearthed in 
2006 at Schoneck-Kilianstadten, 
near Frankfurt. 

He dates them to between 
5207 and 4849 BC, in the Neolithic 
period, by which time farmers 
had spread through most of 
mainland Europe from the 
south-east. 

The find is the third known 
m massacre site from this period, 

I and suggests that despite the 
u popular image of peaceful 
5 harmony among Europe’s 


pastoral inhabitants, things 
sometimes got nasty. 

Meyer says that evidence for 
individual cases of attacks and 
torture in ancient times have 
been found before, but that 
“this is the first time we have 
almost a complete village put 
to death in a mass grave”. 

The shin bones all bear 
evidence that the breaks were 
fresh when the people died. Half 
the victims were children and 
half adults, while the two oldest - 
who were aged over 40 - were the 
only women (PNAS, doi.org/6vm). 

This area was the site of what 
were then the most advanced 


"People may have been left 
starving and desperate 
enough to steal food - 
even if it meant murder" 

human settlements. Previously, 
Europe had been populated by 
hunter-gatherers with few 
possessions who could resolve 
disputes simply by moving away. 

The farmers were the first to 
invest heavily in permanent sites 
by, for example, clearing forests 


and erecting buildings. This meant 
that unlike hunter-gatherers, 
they were seldom able or willing 
to avoid conflicts by leaving. “It 
was the first time in history our 
ancestors were faced with this 
problem,” says Meyer. 

The site of the massacre is on 
a border between two loose 
networks divided by differences 
in pottery and other artefacts 
found there - and so may have 
been targeted or raided by the rival 
network. The most likely trigger, 
Meyer thinks, is that crops failed, 
perhaps because of drought. This 
may have left people starving and 
desperate enough to steal food - 
even if it meant murder. 

Peter Bogucki of Princeton 


University says that without 
leadership structures beyond the 
group, conflicts were intensely 
personal and hard to defuse in 
those days. “There were probably 
codes of honour, respect and 
revenge that structured 
interactions, with the result 
being that things could get 
nasty quickly,” he says. 

Meyer says that injuries to 
the victims’ skulls suggest they 
were killed by blows with an adze, 
a hammer-like tool. Custom- 
designed weaponry didn’t show 
up until the Bronze Age 2000 
years later. “It’s disturbing and 
shocking that violence was also 
evident in Neolithic times,” 
says Meyer. ■ 


Nice spiders fall 
first - and doom 
the silken reef 

ON THE ecological battlefield, friendly 
spiders are the first to fall. A new 
study shows that the behaviour of 
individual animals can determine the 
fate of entire communities. 

Most spiders are loners, but 
Anelosimus studiosus lives in forests 
of the Americas in colonies of up to 
200 related individuals that build 
communal webs called silken reefs. 

The reefs attract other spider 
species and some steal food and even 


prey on Anelosimus. As a result, the 
colony usually collapses within a few 
years. But occasionally, the reef lasts 
longer, growing to several times the 
size of a large car and containing more 
than 50 spider species, says Jonathan 
Pruitt, an ecologist at the University 
of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Earlier, Pruitt and his team had 
shown that individual Anelosimus 
spiders have genetically determined 
"personalities". Some are aggressive, 
others more docile. Could these traits 
affect the fate of the colony? To find 
out, they created 30 lab colonies, 
starting with two docile or two 
aggressive spiders, and transferred 
them to a Tennessee forest, where 



I they tracked them for seven years. 

I Colonies founded by docile spiders 
i quickly accumulated other spider 
^ species, including some that harmed 
the colony. By contrast, colonies 
founded by aggressive spiders were 
better able to fend off other species at 
first (Journal of Animal Ecology, doi. 
org/5bt). "Eventually, they all 
succumb, but aggressives certainly 
make it for longer," says Pruitt. 

The results sound a cautionary note 
for ecologists hoping to predict the 
fate of communities, says Daniel 
Bolnick at the University of Texas in 
Austin. "Individuals vary, and that 
matters in all sorts of ways for 
community ecology." Bob Holmes ■ 


14 I NewScientist I 22 August 2015 


For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news 


E-spliffs - medicinal 
cannabis minus the high 


Clare Wilson 

IT IS the first time Tve been sent 
cannabis through the post but Tm 
unfazed - Tm probably not doing 
anything illegal. 

My delivery is a MediPen. It’s an 
e-cigarette made using a strain of 
marijuana high in cannabidiol 
(CBD), the compound thought to 
give cannabis its purported 
medical benefits, and low in 
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the 
one that gets you high. 

It’s not the first low THC 
e-cigarette in the UK - a similar 
device called KanaVape has been 
on sale since last year - but 
MediPen is the first designed to 
give a high dose of CBD. It contains 
hemp oil imbued with 20 per cent 
CBD compared with KanaVape’s 
5 per cent. 

Therefore puffing on this is 
more likely to deliver benefits - at 
least that’s the claim. Researchers 
warn that there is no way to know 
for sure how much CBD any of 
these products contain, as they 
have not been not tested under 
the same stringent conditions as 
licensed medicines. ‘‘There are a 
lot of claims but no proof,” says 
Arno Hazekamp of Dutch firm 
Bedrocan, the only company in 
Europe that grows cannabis for 
medicinal use. 

The idea is that vaping should 
make it easier for people to get 
hold of and use cannabis 
medicinally, for insomnia, or to 
relieve pain, for instance. Many 
don’t want to get high or just 
dislike having to puff smoke. 
Some put the drug into food but 
that takes longer to work and it 
has more variable effects. 

In Canada and 23 US states 
people can legally take cannabis 
for medical reasons and vaping it 
is becoming more popular. 
However, warning letters were 
recently sent out to the makers of 
18 medical cannabis products by 


the US Food and Drug 
Administration, which found 
many contained lower levels of 
CBD than advertised, with some 
containing none at all. 

In the UK, the rules are stricter. 
The only approved cannabis- 
derived product is an expensive, 
under-the tongue spray, called 
Sativex, prescribed for people 
with multiple sclerosis. MediPen 
offers a cheaper, non-prescription 
alternative, claims Sam Asante of 
the Cardiff-based manufacturer. 

However, the makers of 
MediPen and KanaVape can’t 
claim their products help in any 
specific health problems since 
they haven’t carried out the 
necessary clinical trials. Instead, 
they rely on people being aware of 
the medical effects of cannabis, 
and putting two and two together. 

Health claims aside, the devices 
are probably legal. Hemp products 
have long been sold in UK shops, 
as they are assumed to have no 
narcotic effects. A spokesman for 
the Home Office said CBD was not 
illegal as it was not psychoactive. 


"Many people who use 
cannabis medicinally don't 
want to get high or dislike 
having to puff smoke" 

This I can vouch for. I get no kick 
from it. Apart from the mint choc 
chip flavour, I can barely tell Tm 
inhaling anything but fresh air. 

Pain specialist William Notcutt 
of lames Paget University 
Hospitals in Great Yarmouth, UK, 
has a different gripe - that the 
health benefits are exaggerated. 
“It’s being oversold,” he says. 
“There are shops in LA where they 
say it cures ingrowing toenails.” 

At least CBD is unlikely to do 
any harm, says Notcutt, who 
consults for several makers of 
cannabis-based medicines. “The 
only way you could kill someone 
is by dropping it on their head.” ■ 



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ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 15 



THIS WEEK 


New boson caught 
right-handed? 


Michael Slezak 

PHYSICS may be shifting to the 
right. Tantalising signals at 
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider 
near Geneva, Switzerland, hint 
at a new particle that could end 
50 years of thinking that nature 
discriminates between left 
and right-handed particles. 

Like your hands, some 
fundamental particles are 
different from their mirror 
images, and so have an intrinsic 
handedness or “chirality”. But 
some particles only seem to come 
in one of the two handedness 


"If the Higgs is really a 
composite particle, that 
would mean new forces 
just around the corner" 

options, leading to what’s called 
“left-right symmetry breaking”. 

In particular, W bosons, which 
carry the weak nuclear force, are 
supposed to come only in left- 
handed varieties. The debris from 
smashing protons at the LHC has 
revealed evidence of unexpected 
right-handed bosons. 

After finding the Higgs boson 
in 2012, the collider shut down for 
upgrades, allowing collisions to 
resume at higher energies earlier 
this year. At two of the LHC’s 
experiments, the latest results 
appear to contain four novel 
signals. Together, they could 
hint at a W-boson-like particle, 
the W’, with a mass of about 
2 teraelectronvolts. If confirmed, 
it would be the first boson 
discovered since the Higgs. 

The find could reveal how 
to extend the successful but 
frustratingly incomplete standard 
model of particle physics, in ways 
that could explain the nature of 
dark matter and why there is so 
little antimatter in the universe. 



The strongest signal is an excess 
of particles seen by the ATLAS 
experiment (arxiv.org/ 
abs/1506.00962), at a statistical 
significance of 3.4 sigma. This falls 
short of the 5 sigma regarded as 
proof of existence (see “Particle- 
spotting at the LHC”, below), but 
physicists are intrigued because 
three other unexpected signals at 
the independent CMS experiment 
could point to the same thing. 

“The big question is whether 
there might be some connection 
between these,” says Bogdan 
Dobrescu at Fermilab in Chicago. 
In a paper posted online last 
month, Dobrescu and Zhen Liu, 
also at Fermilab, showed how the 
signals could fit naturally into 
modified versions of left-right 
symmetric models (arxiv.org/ 
abs/1507.01923). They restore left- 
right symmetry by introducing a 
suite of exotic particles, of which 
this possible W’ particle is one. 

Another way to fit the right- 
handed W’ into a bigger theory 
was proposed last week by 
Bhupal Dev at the University of 
Manchester, UK, and Rabindra 
Mohapatra at the University of 
Maryland. They invoke just a few 


novel particles, then restore left- 
right symmetry by giving just one 
of them special properties (arxiv. 
org/abs/1508.02277). 

Some theorists have proposed 
that these exotic particles instead 
hint that the Higgs boson is not 
fundamental particle. Instead, it 
could be a composite, and some 
of its constituents would account 


PARTICLE-SPOTTING AT THE LHC 


HOW DOES THE LHC SEE 
NEW PARTICLES? 

It smashes protons together at 
practically the speed of light 
fleetingly creating exotic particles. 
Analysing the collision debris can 
help identify them. 

WHAT IS 3.4 SIGMA? 

A sigma represents one standard 
deviation, a statistical measure of 
whether an observation is important 
or the result of random noise. 
Physicists have agreed that a particle 
is confirmed if measurements hint at 


its presence with a "5 sigma" 
significance - indicating that the 
chance the signal is simply noise 
is one in several million. 

WHAT IS THE W BOSON? 

The fundamental particles are split 
into two categories: fermions and 
bosons. Fermions are things like 
quarks and electrons, which make 
up ordinary matter. Bosons, like the 
famous Higgs, carry the fundamental 
forces. The W boson is one particle 
that carries the weak nuclear force, 
which is involved in radioactive decay. 


for the observed signals. 

“In my opinion, the most 
plausible explanation is in the 
context of composite Higgs 
models,” says Adam Falkowski 
at CERN. “If this scenario is true, 
that would mean there are new 
symmetries and new forces just 
around the corner.” 

The next step is for the 
existence of the right-handed W’ 
boson to be confirmed or ruled 
out. Dobrescu says that should be 
possible by October this year. But 
testing the broader theories could 
take a couple of years. 

Other LHC anomalies have 
disappeared once more data 
became available. That could 
happen again, but Raymond 
Volkas at the University of 
Melbourne, Australia, says this 
one is more interesting. 

“The fact that the data hint at a 
very sensible and well-motivated 
standard model extension that 
has been studied for decades 
perhaps is reason to take this one 
a bit more seriously,” he says. ■ 


16 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 





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IN BRIEF 



Moon's gravity could pull 
plants to and fro 

IT'S a drag. The movement of plant leaves may be 
partially governed by the gravitational pull of the moon, 
just like ocean tides. 

Some plants' leaves rise and fall during the day-night 
cycle, mostly in reaction to light in their environment. 
But plants grown in the dark have similar cycles, which 
hints that something else may be at work as well. 

Peter Barlow of the University of Bristol, UK, looked 
at data recorded since the 19Z0s on the leaf movement 
of beans and other plants. He matched these with 
estimates of the gravitational influence of the moon at 


the time and location of these experiments. 

The two data sets don't match exactly, says Barlow, 
but generally, when the lunar tide turns, so do the leaves. 
"If you look at enough of these correlations, they all seem 
to be strong enough to make you believe they might be 
causal," he says. 

It's not clear exactly how the moon could influence this 
change, but it may be associated with the movement of 
water in a part of the plant called the pulvinus, the "joint" 
where leaf meets stem {Annals of Botany, doi.org/6tp). 

"Scientific work on lunisolar impact on biological 
systems has sometimes been almost ridiculed," says 
Catarina Rydin of Stockholm University in Sweden, who 
discovered a plant whose pollination is governed by the 
full moon. "Papers like this are very important." 


Superconductor hits record temperature 


SUPERCONDUCTORS have just 
reached a new high. A material 
has been shown to transmit 
electricity with no resistance at 
the highest temperatures ever: 
the chilly conditions you might 
experience in Antarctica. 

Mikhail Eremets at the Max 
Planck Institute for Chemistry 
in Mainz, Germany, and his 
colleagues used a diamond anvil 
to squeeze a tiny quantity of 


hydrogen sulphide to almost 
1.6 million times atmospheric 
pressure. They found that it 
transformed into a material that 
superconducted at temperatures 
as high as -70 °C, breaking the 
previous record of around -110 °C 
(Nature, DOl: 10.1038/ 
naturei4964). 

They’re not sure why it works, 
but it could have to do with the 
material’s light hydrogen ions. 


which help electrons form pairs - 
a configuration that lets current 
travel more swiftly. 

Eremets hopes the new record 
will be beaten. There are a lot of 
materials to try which could have 
even higher thresholds, he says. 

Superconductors can sustain 
a current indefinitely without an 
energy top-up, and finding ones 
that work at room temperature 
would spell a revolution in 
electronics. ‘‘Theoretically they 
are not forbidden,” says Eremets. 


Whistle language 
uses whole brain 

YOU could call it tweeting. 

An ancient form of “whistled” 
Turkish, which sounds like 
birdsong and is used to 
communicate across valleys, 
uses both sides of the brain. 

Until recently, it was thought 
that language was mainly 
understood using the brain’s left 
hemisphere. However, by testing 
31 fluent whistlers, Onur 
Giinturkiin of Ruhr University 
Bochum in Germany and his team 
have shown that this language 
also uses the right hemisphere - 
known to be involved in 
understanding music (Current 
Biology, doi.org/6vd). 

“In all languages, tonal or 
atonal, click or sign language, 
written or spoken, it’s so far been 
the left hemisphere that appears 
to do most of the interpretation,” 
says Giinturkiin. “Now, we have 
shown for the first time equal 
contributions from both 
hemispheres.” 


Star somersaults 
keep planets in line 

MAGNETIC harnesses may keep 
planets in line with their stars. 

Some exoplanets orbit at weird 
angles - instead of circling in the 
same direction in which their star 
spins, their paths are tilted, and 
sometimes even backwards. The 
mismatch seems to defy our 
understanding of how planets are 
born. Oddly, these misalignments 
only seem to happen to stars more 
than 1.2 times the sun’s mass. 

Now Christopher Spalding of 
Caltech argues that smaller stars’ 
planets line up with their spins 
because those stars have stronger 
magnetic fields. As its solar 
system forms, the star’s fields 
grab charged particles in the 
planet-forming disc and pull the 
star into the disc’s plane (arxiv. 
org/abs/1508.02365). 


18 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news 


Disco clam is ah ha 
ha ha stayin' alive 

FOR disco clams, the party never 
stops. Their mesmerising light 
show makes it look as if there are 
lightbulb-like filaments flickering on 
and off inside their shells. The clams 
perform their flashy display more or 
less constantly on the reefs in the 
Indo-Pacif ic where they live, says 
Lindsey Dougherty at the University 
of California in Berkeley. 

She found that they use their 
mantle - a thin membrane around 
their body inside the shell - to reflect 
ambient light in their environment. 
One side of this mantle is coated in 
silica that catches the light, so the 
clam seems to produce brilliant 
flashes as it furls and unfurls it. 

"What everyone really wants to 
know is why they are flashing," says 
Dougherty, who will be discussing 
the phenomenon at a meeting of 
the American Malacological Society 
in Pellston, Michigan, later this 
month. "Unfortunately it's a really 
difficult question to answer." 

Her team has found that the light 
show isn't used to communicate 
with other clams or to attract 
plankton to eat. Instead, the clams 
may be trying to put off predators. 
But predation events are rarely 
seen, so finding evidence is hard. 

Dougherty hopes to identify 
aggressors from signs of attack on 
old shells she has collected, and 
introduce these predators to clams 
in the lab to see what happens. 



Oldest human hand hints at early descent from the trees 


THE discovery of a 1.8-million- 
year-old pinky bone suggests that 
modern human hands, good at 
tool use but bad at tree climbing, 
evolved earlier than we thought. 

The bone found in Tanzania’s 
Olduvai Gorge is the earliest 
modern-human-like hand bone 
ever found, and pushes back the 
origin of our dextrous digits by 
some 400,000 years. 

The find suggests that by 1.8 
million years ago, a Homo sapiens- 
like species had already made the 
transition to terrestrial living, and 
coexisted with smaller, more tree- 


dwelling Homo habilis and 
Paranthropus boisei. 

“This bone belongs to somebody 
who’s not spending any time in 
the trees at all,” says Manuel 
Dominguez-Rodrigo from the 
Institute of Evolution in Africa, 
in Madrid, whose team analysed 
the bone. Hanging from branches 
bends bones like this one that 
extend from the knuckle, whereas 
in modern humans - and in this 
case - they are straighter (Nature 
Communications, DOl: 10.1038/ 
ncomms8987). 

“This provides good evidence 


supporting the hypothesis that, 
by about 2 million years ago, our 
early ancestors lost the anatomy 
linked to our tree-climbing past,” 
says Brian Richmond of the 
American Museum of Natural 
History in New York. 

But Richard Potts of the 
Smithsonian Human Origins 
Program in Washington DC says 
that a single bone is not enough 
to conclude that the hand it came 
from truly resembles that of a 
modern human, even though it is 
clearly different from those of the 
ape-like Australopithecines. 



Why some kangaroos walk on all fives 


Blind mice run off 
after gene therapy 

WHEN the owl swooped, the 
“blind” mice ran away. A new 
type of gene therapy had 
reprogrammed cells in their eyes 
to enable them to sense light. 

The treated mice ran for cover 
when played a video of an 
approaching owl. “They reacted 
to the owl in the same way as 
sighted mice, whereas the 
untreated mice didn’t do 
anything,” says Rob Lucas of the 
University of Manchester, UK. 

This is his team’s best evidence 
yet that injecting the human 
gene for the pigment rhodopsin 
into the eyes of blind mice can 
help them see real objects again. 
The pigment enables nerve cells 
deeper in the retina to sense light 
for themselves (Current Biology, 
doi.org/6t8). 

Unlike in previous studies, 
these mice could see objects at 
normal light levels rather than 
just under extremely bright light. 

The approach aims to treat all 
types of blindness caused by 
damaged or missing rods and 
cones - the eye’s light-receptor 
cells. Most gene therapies for 
blindness so far have focused on 
replacing faulty genes in rarer, 
specific forms of inherited 
blindness. 


HIGH fives all round? Some kangaroos 
use their tail as a fifth leg to help 
them get around. 

Kangaroos and their cousins hop 
when they need to move quickly, and 
the longer their back legs are, the 
faster they can go. At slower speeds, 
they lean over and use their arms too, 
in a kind of jumpy-crawl, and that's 
when many species use their tail as a 
fifth leg. However, not all species do 
this, and no one knew why. 

So Rebekah Dawson from the 
University of Western Australia in 
Perth and her colleagues examined 
walking in 16 species. They found 


that only animals whose legs are long 
relative to their body size co-opt the 
tail as a fifth leg, but it also depends 
on the habitat of each species. 

All of the "five-legged" species live 
in open forests and grasslands. Those 
with the standard four inhabit denser 
forests and hilly areas. That's probably 
because long legs are more important 
in open areas to escape predators, 
whereas manoeuvrability matters 
more in forests {Australian Jaurnal 
afZaalagy, doi.org/6s3). 

This "nicely resolves a considerable 
puzzle", says Terry Dawson of the 
University of New South Wales. 


Zl August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 19 



TECHNOLOGY 



Don't park your outrage 


Online tools are making it far easier to challenge decisions, generate 
campaigns and resolve disputes, finds Aviva Rutkin 


IT WAS winter in California. Eric 
Schoffstall, a software developer 
in San Francisco, was driving 
through one of the state’s national 
parks when he found that the road 
ahead had been closed for the rest 
of the season - because of snow. 

Except that California was and 
is in the middle of a drought, and 
there was no snow in sight. The 
road, Schoffstall figured, had been 
shut simply as a matter of routine. 

“It really bugged me,” he says. 
He wondered whether he could 
fake public outrage around the 
issue, without wasting much 
money or time. “I started thinking 
about how I could automate 
making my voice heard.” 

As a test, Schoffstall picked a 
smaller battle: light pollution at 
a park near his apartment. He 
used Amazon’s crowdsourcing 
marketplace to solicit fake 
complaints, offering 20 cents for 


each one received. The responses 
rolled in, some surprisingly 
specific, referencing local political 
history or relating personal tales 
of woe (see “Those lights ruined 
my romance”, below). 

One of the responses criticised 
SchoffstalTs strategy: “Writing 
fictitious complaints to the 
government is never a good idea.” 
Undeterred, he sent a few of the 


other responses to the 
neighbourhood association and 
the city’s parks and recreation 
department. A few weeks later, the 
park lights had been fitted with 
guards to block upward beams. 

With a little technological 
know-how, Schoffstall had found 
that he could amplify his own 
indignation. “The automation 
potential for this is shocking,” 


he says. “Look at corporate 
lobbying. You could bring that 
power into anyone’s hands.” 

That will alarm many, like the 
respondent who took Schoffstall 
to task. But automation need not 
involve seeking the backing of 
the masses. 

In certain US cities, drivers 
who receive a parking ticket can 
snap a picture of it and upload it 
via the apps Winit, Cited or Fixed. 


"With a little technological 
know-how, he could 
artificially amplify his 
own indignation" 

Software identifies information 
like the ticket ID, and scans the 
details for errors or cross- 
references them against other 
sources, such as the street labels 
on Google Maps. Then human 
experts look the case over and, 
if a defence can be made, contest 
the fine on the driver’s behalf. 

The service saves people the 
time and hassle of trying to make 
sense of complicated parking 
regulations, says Christian Fama, 
one of Winit’s founders. “People 
don’t know what the defences are. 
There’s nuanced stuff that, unless 
you’re an expert, you might not 
know to do,” he says. 

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, 
citizens irked by the many 
helicopters in local airspace have 
pushed for their complaints to be 
heard by the US Federal Aviation 
Administration. Enter the 
Automated Complaint System, 
which the FAA launched in April. 
People bothered by a specific 
helicopter can now call a hotline 
and answer a series of recorded 
questions, or go online and spot 
the copter on a live map. The 
system automatically records 
where each helicopter was 
spotted, which company was 
flying it and for how long. 

David Garfinkle of the Los 
Angeles Helicopter Noise 
Coalition says that the system 
has made it easier and faster to 
register complaints - so far, it has 
collected about 6000 of them. 


THOSE LIGHTS RUINED MY ROMANCE 

When Eric Schoffstall asked people unable to rest properly at night due 

on the Amazon Mechanical Turk to this outrageous amount of light 

platform to pen complaints about pollution." 

light pollution in a park, he had • "I heard one of my neighbours 

ZO responses in Z hours. Workers talking about taking the lights down 
spent an average of 5 minutes himselfl He is no electrician and 

Z5.5 seconds on each one - and they could get himself hurt." 
were nothing if not inventive: • "My late-night romance has been 

• "I've already had to take two sick ruined because of these bright 
days off of work because I have been lightsi" 


ZO I NewScientist I ZZ August Z015 




For more technology stories, visit newscientist.com/technology 


Eavesdropping app 
makes phone your PA 


Over time, it will help quantify the 
problem and highlight the 
noisiest offenders. 

But as it gets easier for people to 
register their grievances, it may 
get harder for the authorities to 
process them, says Harry Surden, 
a professor at the University of 
Colorado Law School in Boulder. 

“Maybe those barriers were 
serving a societal purpose, 
making it hard enough that only 
people who really cared about an 
issue were able to complain,” he 
says. Traditionally, most people 
didn’t contest parking tickets. 
With the new software, it’s 
possible the authorities will be 
overwhelmed by a sudden influx 
of cases filed by proxies. 

Digital judgements 

Perhaps the solution is for dispute 
resolution itself to be partly 
automated. Auction site eBay and 
internet payment system PayPal 
rely on a San lose company called 
Modria to handle most disputes 
between users. Modria’s platform 
collects details of the transaction, 
checks them against the rules 
in its system, and then spits out 
a judgement. 

Such a model could also work 
for cases that tend to follow 
predictable patterns, such as 
disputes between landlords and 
tenants, says Daniel Martin Katz 
at the Chicago-Kent College of 
Law. “In these digital courts, it 
turns out there’s an 80/20 rule: 

80 per cent of the disputes are 
pretty simple and easy to deal 
with,” he says. “Eventually, you 
make it to a human, but before 
that there’s a lot of stuff that can 
get resolved with little human 
involvement.” 

It may be a long time before 
real-world courts come around 
to the idea. In the meantime, 
people like Schoffstall will 
continue to take their issues into 
their own hands. 

“The end goal for me is to just 
get that road open,” he says. “If 1 
could work my way up to that, Td 
be pretty happy about it.” ■ 


YOUR phone is listening to you. A 
program that runs in the background 
of your smartphone can digest and 
understand the sounds of the world 
around it. The information it gleans 
could inform the next generation of 
virtual assistants. It could also make 
search engines far more useful. 

Neural networks - computer 
models that ape the complexity of 
the brain - dominate our online lives: 
Google Translate can whip English 
text into Russian, for example, while 
Facebook's DeepFace can pick one 
face out of millions. 

Now that power is moving offline. 
Nic Lane and colleagues at Bell Labs 
in Murray Hill, New Jersey, have built 
a listening neural network called 
DeepEar that runs on a phone without 
being connected to the internet. 

The idea of continuous audio 
sensing isn't new, but until now the 
algorithms haven't worked well in a 
noisy environment. They were also 
too power hungry. Lane's system uses 
about 6 per cent of a smartphone's 
battery for a whole day of listening. 

DeepEar works by training a neural 
network to listen for and recognise 
different kinds of aural scenes. 


identify human speakers, recognise 
emotion and detect stress. In the roar 
of a busy train station, for instance, 
DeepEar might be able to hear the 
time of the next train announced over 
the PA system, as well as the emotion 
in its owner's voice as they argue with 
a slow ticket-seller. That information 
could help software assistants learn 
to remind the phone user to arrive at 
this particular station with plenty of 
time to spare in future. 

"This means a very responsive 
virtual assistant that can understand 
both you and your environment and 
respond to you immediately," says 
Dimitrios Lymberopoulos at Microsoft 
Research in Washington State. 


"The system is trained to 
identify individual human 
speakers, recognise 
emotion and detect stress" 

"This experience could make virtual 
assistants way more useful." 

Unlike the major commercial neural 
networks, DeepEar doesn't rely on 
powerful computers accessed via an 
internet connection to do its heavy 
lifting. Instead it uses only the 


processors in a smartphone. This 
saves battery life and keeps the user's 
personal information on their own 
device rather than in the cloud. 

It's not just audio that offline neural 
networks are targeting. Earlier this 
year. Lane and colleagues built a 
prototype device designed to capture 
high-resolution lifestyle data from 
wearable sensors. The system, worn 
on the lapel, could make inferences 
about what the person was doing by 
interacting with sensors such as 
FitBits. It also listened to the wearer's 
voice to detect issues such as stress. 

Lymberopoulos says endowing 
mobile devices with the ability to 
continuously analyse data allows 
them to understand the environment 
someone is in, and adjust their 
interface accordingly. 

"Because of the ubiquity of mobile 
devices and the robustness and 
accuracy of neural networks, we could 
use these systems to understand the 
physical world and index it in 
real-time," says Lymberopoulos. 

He also envisages adding the 
findings of neural nets like DeepEar 
to search engines, letting us search 
for cafes by ambience, for instance. 

"Right now, there is no search 
engine that can understand what a 
'crowded bar' or a 'bar playing loud 
pop music' is. With this type of sound 
classification, we can make this real," 
he says. Hal Hodson B 



ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 21 


TECHNOLOGY 


ONE PER CENT 


Rise of the Al sports coach 

software can help, says Chris Baraniuk 


Winners need good data 

WHO really calls the shots in team 
sports? The players? The coach? 
Maybe it could be a computer. 

Software analysis of the passing 
strategies of teams in the Spanish 
football league during the 2013-14 
season has given a unique insight 
into how they play. It's one of a 
raft of artificial intelligence tools 
that are giving coaches a deeper 
understanding of the game. 

The software analysed video of 
300,000 passes made across the 
season and identified hundreds 
of patterns used by the teams. 

“We were curious about 
whether it was possible to distil 
some of the tactics of the team 
from the trajectory of the ball,” 
says Laszlo Gyarmati of the Qatar 
Computing Research Institute. 

Sure enough, the algorithm 
revealed that Barcelona and Real 


Madrid had over 100 recurring 
passing patterns - 151 and 180 
respectively. There were surprises, 
too. Atletico Madrid, which won 
the league that season, had just 
31 recurring patterns (arxiv.org/ 
abs/1508.02171). 

Stefan Szymanski, a professor 
of sport management at the 
University of Michigan, says this 
lack of predictability could be why 
Atletico Madrid were successful. 

“If I were a club I might even 
say we don't want more passing 
patterns, we want fewer patterns,'' 
he says. “What makes Messi the 
greatest player on the planet is 
you just don't know where the 
hell that guy is going next.'' 

The biggest teams are already 
investigating how data analysis 
can help improve their game. 
Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim, 


for example, recently partnered 
with German software giant SAP 
to gain detailed performance 
assessments after each match. 

SAP's system uses machine 
learning to comb through match 
data. But it also incorporates 
manually annotated comments 
from analysts, so it can begin to 
understand the data in the way 
that a human coach might. 

Other team sports can benefit 
too. In Finland, a start-up called 


'Atletico Madrid had just 31 
recurring passing patterns, 
a lack of predictability that 
made them so successful" 

SportIQhas developed wearable 
devices for ice hockey players 
and a connected puck that 
communicates location data to 
radio receivers set up in stadiums. 
CEO Harri Hohteri says the system 
is able to pick out tactical insights 
during the game. He is hoping to 
get approval from the Finnish ice 
hockey league for professional 
teams to use SportIQ's technology 
in the upcoming season. 

In the US, another firm - Second 
Spectrum - has created a pattern 
recognition system for basketball. 
This learns the positions of the 
players and types of play. “Almost 
every single contender for an NBA 
championship this year is using 
our software,'' Second Spectrum 
CEO Rajiv Maheswaran told a TED 
talk in March. 

American football is also 
getting in on the act. Alan Fern 
at Oregon State University has 
worked on a project to develop 
AI for match analysis. He says 
computers still need to get better 
at picking out the patterns worth 
flagging to coaches. But he 
believes they have great promise. 

“I think this will definitely 
revolutionise sports,'' Fern says. ■ 





Augmented ride 

Get ready to upgrade your cycle 
ride. Chinese start-up InSenth is 
developing augmented reality 
glasses specif ically for use while 
cycling. Arrows projected onto the 
road avoid the need for a map, 
and the glasses display relevant 
statistics such as speed, distance 
covered and calories burned. 

They also have an inbuilt camera. 
InSenth is crowdfunding the 
development of the glasses, and 
has almost met its $40,000 goal. 



The numberof times US pilots have 
seen drones while airborne this year. 
There were only 214 sightings in all 
of 2014, according to the Federal 
Aviation Administration 


Apple's self-drive car 

Apple or Android? We're all familiar 
with making this choice for 
smartphones, but it's about to 
take on a new meaning. A public 
records request by The Guardian 
newspaper in London confirms 
that Apple is working on an 
autonomous car, following in 
Google's footsteps. The firm aims 
to test its Project Titan vehicles at 
the GoMentum facility in Concord, 
California, which is specially 
designed for the purpose. 


22 1 NewScientist I 22 August 2015 






A career in science 
it’s not always 
what you think 


From movie advisor to science 
festival director, where will your 
science career take you? 


NewSdenUstJobs 


newscientist.com/jobs 


APERTURE 


f- 


,4* 







24 1 NewScientist 1 22 August 2015 





Tar muchly 

TIME for a moment of reflection. This image of a 
solitary pumping boat sailing on the still waters 
of an artificial lake in the Canadian province of 
Alberta, was taken in 2013 by the Canadian 
photographer Louis Helbig. 

The serenity of the landscape disguises its 
colossal economic value. Stretching over 93,000 
square kilometres under this part of Canada is the 
Athabasca oil sands, one of the largest deposits of 
crude oil in the world and the principal source of 
petroleum forthe US. 

The oil is found in the form of bitumen, a thick 
black liquid whose resemblance to tar means the 
terrain is sometimes referred to as tar sands. Once 
extracted from the ground, the bitumen needs 
to be purified in ponds such as the Syncrude 
Southwest Sand Storage, pictured here. "What 
is mind-boggling is the scale of this enterprise," 
says Helbig. 

Each dot on the water's surface is a scarecrow 
called a "bitu-man", intended to dissuade birds 
from diving into the toxic water and saving them 
from the oily surface coating that enhances its 
reflectiveness. 

Helbig has been chronicling the changes 
caused to this part of Canada by the petroleum 
industry since 2008. In late 2014 he released 
Beautiful Destruction, a book containing more 
than 230 of his photographs of the oil sands, 
alongside essays presenting a spectrum of 
views on the future of Alberta's mining industry. 
"My role as an artist is to create a space where 
people will begin to imagine and reflect," 
says Helbig. Gilead Amit 


Photographer 

Louis Helbig 

beautifuldestruction.ca 


22 August 2015 1 NewScientist f 25 


OPINION 


Don't let fear win 

Deep distrust of nuclear energy must be addressed in order to 
realise its potential to power the future, says Geraldine Thomas 


WHEN atomic bombs destroyed 
Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years 
ago this month, the nuclear age 
began in truly shocking fashion. 
From this shadow emerged the 
peaceful application of nuclear 
technology to generate electricity. 

Nuclear power continues its 
slow spread today, a high-tech, 
low-carbon way to produce energy 
at a time when curbing emissions 
is a priority. And yet the degree of 
public anxiety over nuclear power 
seems frozen in time, owing 
more to 1945 than anything since. 

The fears far outweigh the risk. 
This industry has seen only a 
handful of serious accidents. Fear 
persists because of the long-term 
health effects that radiation 
can cause, such as cancer. This is 
what concerns the public most. 

Even though our knowledge of 
the effects has greatly increased, 
one major gap remains, and it 
helps fuel the worries. There is 



a dose-response relationship for 
all toxic substances we are exposed 
to, including ionising radiation. 

The problem is the shape of 
that relationship. At present, we 
assume radiation effects scale 
linearly with the dose size, as we 
don’t have, and may never have, 
the evidence to disprove this. This 
results in the conclusion that no 
dose of radiation is safe. 

However, a paper in The Lancet 
focusing on the 2011 accident at 
Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power 
plant, which followed the Tohoku 
earthquake and tsunami, suggests 
that measures to protect against 
low radiation doses with an 
indefinable health risk may 
create an even greater health risk. 

The psychological harm and 
stress of measures such as long- 
term evacuation can kill. For 
example, mortality among those 
moved from nursing care in the 
area around Fukushima increased 


Fat unlimited 

The obsession with fat intake needs to end, 

say Dariush Mozaffarian and David Ludwig 


FOR decades we have been fed 
official limits on the total fat in 
our diets. It’s time that ended, a 
position we have summarised in 
the journal JAMA (doi.org/6s2). 

Dietary policies have long 
emphasised limits. In 1980, the 
US recommended that no more 
than 30 per cent of daily calories 
should come from fat. The World 


Health Organization and many 
countries followed suit. 

In place of fat, we were told to 
eat more carbohydrates. People 
and industry took the message to 
heart, and fat-reduced products 
followed - often rich in refined 
starch, added sugars and salt. 

But by 2000, growing research 
showed benefits from healthy fats, 


and harms in low-fat diets high 
in processed carbohydrates. So in 
2005, US guidelines raised the 
upper fat limit to 35 per cent and, 
for the first time, set a lower limit 
of 20 per cent. Few people noticed, 
and the low-fat craze continued. 

Through continued advances 
in nutrition science, it is now 
clear that an emphasis on 
reducing total fat is not only 
unhelpful, but can be harmful. 
Whether for weight loss or 
preventing long-term weight gain. 


"By focusing on total fat, 
dietary guidelines, policies 
and formulations have at 
times become bizarre" 


diabetes, cardiovascular disease 
or cancer, evidence shows that 
it brings no clear health gain. 

In contrast, meaningful health 
benefits are documented with 
high plant fat. Mediterranean- 
style diets supplemented with 
extra- virgin olive oil or nuts, in 
which total fat intake makes up 
more than 40 per cent of calories. 

Based on these findings, the 
US Dietary Guidelines Advisory 
Committee omitted a total fat 
limit in recommendations, ahead 
of final benchmarks this year. 

The US, UK and others should 
take note. Existing advice is 
driving consumers and industry 
towards low-fat products high in 


Z6 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 


For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion 


by about three-fold in the first 
three months after leaving. 

The population faced huge 
societal dislocation, and many 
people died - but the loss of life 
was down to a natural disaster and 
our response to a human-made 
one, not the nuclear accident. So 
deep is distrust that just one of 
japan’s 43 reactors has restarted 
since the shutdown of all its plants. 

We should learn from the 
accident to ensure we don’t repeat 
mistakes. But we must also 
recognise that an overreaction can 
produce health risks greater than 
those of the incident itself. 

An inability to keep cool in 
summer and warm in winter takes 
a toll on older people, and climate 
change will affect us all. Societies 
may have to accept that the health 
risks of a very rare nuclear power 
accident are a lot smaller than 
we allowed ourselves to believe. 

If we don’t take note of the 
lessons on risk communication 
from Fukushima, public mistrust 
of nuclear power may lead to it 
being marginalised, despite its 
potential for powering our future. 
That would have a much more 
detrimental effect on the health 
of future generations. ■ 


Geraldine Thomas is a professor 
of molecular pathology at Imperial 
College London 


refined carbs, sugars and salt; 
and away from healthy higher-fat 
foods such as nuts, vegetable oils 
and whole-fat dairy products. 

By focusing on total fat, dietary 
guidelines, policies and food 
formulations have at times 
become bizarre and paradoxical. 
Let’s remove this obsolete limit 
and focus instead on healthy 
wholefoods and diet patterns. ■ 


Dariush Mozaffarian is dean of the 
Friedman School of Nutrition Science & 
Policy Tufts University Massachusetts; 
David Ludwig directs the New Balance 
Foundation Obesity Prevention Center 
in Boston and is author of forthcoming 
book Always Hungry? (Grand Central) 


ONE MINUTE INTERVIEW 


Let Al solve your disputes 

There's too much talk of Terminators and too little of how artificial 
intelligence can create fairer societies, says Ariel Procaccia 



PROFILE 

Ariel Procaccia is a computer scientist at Carnegie 
Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fie 
has worked on a variety of "Al fairness" projects, 
including Splidditorg 


Can Al solve human disagreements? 

That's the ideal, In situations where there are 
disputes or arguments we would want Al to 
be able to give us intelligent proposals in an 
automated way. One approach is to base these 
proposals on principles of economic theory. 

How does economic theory help? 

The main guestion here is what is fair. We want a 
rigorous definition of fairness that the computer 
can understand. That's where economic theory 
comes in, because a lot of work has been done 
on how to formalise, in mathematical terms, what 
fairness means and then design algorithms that 
can provably achieve those notions of fairness. 

What sort of problems can this tackle? 

Maybe the most intuitive example is rent division. 
Think about a situation where there are a few 
flatmates renting an apartment together and 
they have assigned the rooms but now have to 
divide the rent. The rooms are different - one 
is larger, one has a nicer view and so on. The 
algorithm can be informed about the preferences 


of each flatmate by getting them to value the 
rooms and then incorporating their valuations 
into a final calculation. The outcome we're 
shooting for is a very compelling property called 
envy freeness - we don't want anybody to be 
envious of anybody else. 

Is that why you set up a website - to give 
people the opportunity to try out Al like this? 

Yes, In November 2014 we launched Spliddit,org, 
which helps people fairly divide up goods, rent, 
bills in restaurants and fares on transport, among 
otherthings. 

Are you looking beyond these simple 
scenarios? 

With dispute-resolution cases, you can go from 
simple right up to things like the dispute between 
the Israelis and the Palestinians, But at all of these 
levels, I think Al in collaboration with economics 
could ultimately give pretty good proposals for 
what outcomes will best satisfy the parties 
involved. We still have a lot of work to do, however. 

So in the future, will Al be making all of our 
decisions for us? 

I think we're far away from the point where Al will 
completely take over decision-making. The goal 
right now for this type of application is definitely 
not to replace human negotiators with robots, 
negotiating on their behalf, but more along the 
lines of Al and humans working in tandem. 

Some, such as Stephen Hawking, worry that 
abilities like this could make Al too powerful. 
Are you afraid? 

I knew this guestion was coming! It's funny, 
because I just came from a conference on 
Al in Argentina, where there was a lot of 
discussion of killer robots. I'm not an expert in 
robotics or general Al, but the point I do want to 
make is I think there's too much attention given 
to killer robots and not enough to the benefits 
that Al has for society right now. We could talk 
about those a bit more and Terminators a bit less. 
Interview by Chris Baraniuk 


22 August 2015 1 NewScientist I 27 


COVER STORY 


STRANGELY 

FAMILIAR 


What if dark matter is normal matter in 
disguise, ask Sabine Hossenfelder and 
Naomi Lubick 


I T’S matter, but not as we know it. In July, an 
unexpected visitor appeared at CERN’s Large 
Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. 
Dubbed the pentaquark, this peculiar particle 
represents a fundamentally new way to 
aggregate the basic building blocks of matter. 
Although not forbidden by our current 
understanding of how stuff comes together, 
it had never been conclusively spotted before. 

This sort of thing is music to Glenn 
Starkman’s ears. A theoretical physicist at Case 
Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, 
Starkman is banging the drum for a bold idea: 
that there are even more exotic configurations 
of ordinary matter out there just waiting to 
be discovered. His audacious proposal is to 
find traces of this oddball matter by various 
means, from exhuming data left in mothballed 
gravitational wave detectors and searching 
ancient minerals to deploying seismometers 
on the moon. He even argues that ordinary 
matter in extraordinary formations could 


solve one of the greatest cosmological 
mysteries of our time - dark matter. 

For physicists faced with the most difficult 
conundrums, inventing new particles beyond 
those we already know has long been the go-to 
trick. Nobel prizewinner Wolfgang Pauli was 
an early adopter. In 1930, he proposed that the 
missing energy in certain experiments was 
carried off by an elusive particle that escaped 
measurement. Pauli himself was not happy 
with his invention. ‘T have done a terrible 
thing,” he said. 'T have postulated a particle 
that cannot be detected.” He needn’t have 
worried: what we now know as the neutrino 
was found in 1956. 

Physicists have been busily inventing 
particles ever since, and in the process they 
have built up the standard model - the most 
complete description yet of particles and 
their interactions. Its crowning glory came 
in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson, 
which explains why particles have mass. 


But the standard model doesn’t delight 
physicists. Its mathematical structure appears 
piecemeal and patched up. And it still contains 
gaping holes, not least its failure to explain 
dark matter - the shadowy stuff that accounts 
for 85 per cent of matter in the universe, yet 
neither absorbs nor emits light and seems 
to interact only weakly with other matter. 

Faced with this riddle, physicists have 
followed tradition and contrived dark matter 
candidates, from weedy WIMPs to massive 
WIMPZILLAs. But none has been spotted. 
Contenders suggested by supersymmetry - 
which predicts that all known particles have 
a more massive “super-partner” - are also 
a no-show. 

Somewhere along the way, then, the 
panacea of dreaming up particles has stopped 
working. That leads Starkman to a provocative 
conclusion. “Look, the standard model has no 
experimental failures,” he says. “So the fact 
that we have philosophical and aesthetic > 


28 1 NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



"Exotic clumps of familiar particles 
could be as dense as neutron stars yet 
much smaller and harder to spot" 


problems with it may be just something 
we need to get over.” Instead of constantly 
devising particles, Starkman argues that we 
should look more closely at those we already 
know. Perhaps old particles are capable of 
new tricks. 

To form the matter that surrounds us, 
elementary particles come together in certain 
standard configurations. Quarks combine 
in threes to form compound particles known 
as baryons, for instance. The protons and 
neutrons that make up atomic nuclei are 
baryons formed of trios of up and down quarks, 
the lightest two of the six quark variants. We 
also know of short-lived combinations of a 
quark and an antiquark, known as mesons. 

But quarks are quirky. They never float 
around freely thanks to a peculiar property 
of the strong nuclear force that binds them. 
When the distance between quarks is small, 
the force is weak. But as that distance 
increases, it gets stronger and the quarks are 
pulled back together. Another strange quality 
of the strong force is that it is weaker at high 
energies, such as those produced in collisions 
at the LHC. Physicists can calculate how 
quarks interact at these energies but not at 
lower ones, where the force keeping quarks 
together strengthens. As a result, physicists 
still struggle to explain how quarks form 
mesons and baryons, a process which occurs 
at lower energies. 

This uncertainty has led to proposals that 
other forms of matter might exist. As early 
as the 1980s, Edward Witten, a mathematical 
physicist at Princeton University, suggested 
that light quarks could combine with their 
heavier cousins, such as strange quarks, 
in unusual ways (see diagram, right). 

Unlike in ordinary matter, these 
combinations of quarks would not form 
atomic nuclei. Instead they would develop 
into large amorphous blobs, gathering 
ever more particles in a small space. Witten 
called them “quark nuggets”. Bryan Lynn, 
a theoretical physicist at University College 
London, and others later expanded this to 
more examples such as “strange baryon 
matter” and “chiral liquid drops”. 

Such exotic clumps of familiar elementary 
particles would not contain the enormous 
spaces between atomic nuclei that we see in 
normal matter. This would make them as 
dense as neutron stars, a teaspoon of which 
weighs as much as a mountain. So even 
though they might be extremely heavy, they 
could also be tiny. Some researchers have 
dubbed them “macros” - a reference to the 
need to measure their masses in kilograms 


and tonnes rather than the vanishingly 
small units usually employed for particles. 

And because macros are entirely made up 
of nuclear matter, without any circulating 
electrons or empty spaces, they would not 
be capable of sustaining fusion and therefore 
could not shine. The high density of the 
clumps would also make them less likely to 
interact with incoming light. In short, macros 
would be diminutive, massive and extremely 
hard to spot, if not entirely invisible. 

Weight watchers 

It sounds like the perfect recipe for dark matter. 
But physicists had previously discounted the 
idea, for two reasons. First, if macros are 
compact objects about as heavy as our sun, 
similar to brown dwarfs or black holes, then 
they would have to outnumber visible stars in 
order to account for dark matter. If so, macros 
would frequently bend the light reaching 
Earth from stars, an effect known as 
gravitational lensing. But the amount of bent 
light we do see is already accounted for by 
familiar cosmic objects made of normal matter. 
Second, if nuclear matter were spread out 
in a thin carpet across the universe, it would 
interact with itself and other matter, and 
hinder the formation of galaxies as we know it. 

But when Starkman and his colleagues took 
a closer look, they saw that macros would 
not have to be so heavy as to cause frequent 

Great balls of quarks 


gravitational lensing, nor spread out thinly 
enough to regularly interact with anything. 
Clumped into medium-sized drops, neither 
huge nor tiny, they would be compatible 
with existing cosmological observations. 

With that in mind, Starkman and his 
colleagues have begun the search for evidence 
that such medium-sized macros exist. “This 
is almost the most silly but definitely the 
most obvious thing that we should do,” says 
Starkman’s collaborator David lacobs, from 
the University of Cape Town in South Africa. 

They started by trying to figure out where 
macros at the lighter end of the allowed mass 
scale might have already showed up. That 
meant revisiting the work of physicist Paul 
Buford Price at the University of California, 
Berkeley, who had searched for signs of 
massive particles in the Earth’s crust back in 
the 1980s. Price thought that heavy, weakly 
interacting particles occasionally passing 
through would have bumped the crystal 
lattices of transparent minerals known as 
micas buried deep underground. But his 
samples, taken from collections held at 
the British Museum and the Smithsonian 
Institution, showed no trace of that. 

On to plan B. In the 1970s, researchers 
mounted polycarbonate plastic sheets on the 
Skylab space station, hoping to spot particles 
via the etchings they left on the plastic as the 
craft orbited Earth. Specifically, they were on 
the lookout for low-energy cosmic ray ions. 


In ordinary matter, quarks are bundled in twos and threes. If more could clump together, they could form 
ultra-massive "macro" particles that could account for the universe's elusive dark matter 


up 

Dawn 

Strange 

Chorm 

Bottom 

Top 

Quark 

d 

0 

e 


& 

Arrtiquark ( 

d' 


© 

© 

© 


Baryons and mesons 
(normal matter) 


Penta quark 

Strongest evidence 
found atCERNinJuly 


Macros 

Dense agglomerations 
of very many quarks 


00 





4 % 

Proton 

Pion 


KiJ 

& 


d*) d/' 


Koon 





30 1 NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 


Cosmic ray detectors 
might be tweaked to 
record oddball matter 
raining down on Earth 




Starkman figured that macros too stood a 
chance of marking the material, but a fresh 
look at the Skylab plastic did not reveal 
anything resembling a macro track. 

Then there was NAUTILUS, an experiment 
based near Rome, Italy, that started looking for 
gravitational waves in the 1990s. NAUTILUS 
consists of a supercooled 2-tonne aluminium 
cylinder that is closely monitored for any 
deformations that could signify the passage of 
ripples stretching space and time. Starkman, 
lacobs and Amanda Weltman, also at Cape 
Town, figured that a macro travelling 
through the detector could interact with 
the aluminium, releasing energy that would 
cause the device to heat up and deform 
ever so slightly. Alas, they found no sign of 
macros (Physical Review D, vol 91, p 115023). 

The striking absence of signals from these 
experiments allowed Starkman to further 
constrain the range of allowed macro masses, 
but the window of possibilities remains 
large - between roughly 50 grams and the 
mass of Mount Everest. 

Time to dream up more far-out experiments 
to narrow the range still further, lacobs hopes 

"If we are right, then this 
means the LHC won't see 
dark matter candidates" 

that marine hydrophones, normally employed 
to study whales or track illegal nuclear 
weapons tests, may be able to hear the impact 
vibrations of macros passing through the 
ocean. He also plans to study data from 
cosmic ray detectors, designed to look for 
particle showers created when protons or 
lightweight nuclei from outer space collide 
with the upper atmosphere. If a macro 
interacted with Earth’s atmosphere, it would 
produce a characteristic light signal, but cosmic 
ray detectors are not programmed to scan 
the skies for such hints. Starkman is hoping 
to persuade the Pierre Auger Observatory in 


Argentina to reprogram their detectors. 

The best bet might be a little further from 
home: Earth’s moon. When the last Apollo 
astronauts departed the moon in 1972, they 
left behind a network of four seismometers. 
Over the following five years, these devices 
recorded thousands of seismic events caused 
by crashing meteorites, tidal forces or the 
expansion of the moon’s crust as it warms 
after a long cold lunar night. Clearly the moon 
is seismically active, albeit much less so than 
Earth, with its magma innards and shifting 
tectonic plates. And it is possible that this 
quake data could betray macro trails. 

In 2002, researchers reported a possible 
macro signal in Earth’s seismic data, but it 
turned out to be a false alarm due to an offset 
clock on a seismometer. Now Starkman and 
others want to go back to the relative calm of 
the moon to test the idea that middleweight 
macros might create a distinctive line of 
consecutive quakes as they pass through. 

The seismometers left on the moon were 
pretty crude, but planetary geologists are 
plotting to head back there with better kit. 
Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s let Propulsion Lab in 
Pasadena, California, and his colleagues have 
drawn up plans for a more sensitive lunar 
seismic detection network - and having built 
one for the InSight mission to Mars, launching 
next year, he knows what he is doing. ‘T had 
no idea just how sensitive a seismometer was 
until I had to build one,” he says. His Mars 
instrument is so sensitive that it can pinpoint 
positions to about the radius of a hydrogen 
atom - enough to pick up a passing macro. 

Is it really worth going to such extremes 
to hunt for these oddballs from outer space? 
The difficulty in calculating their behaviour 
means researchers still can’t be sure that 
macros could have formed in the necessary 
amounts to make up dark matter, nor whether 
they would be stable enough to hold together. 

And that’s not the only issue. ‘T don’t see 
how it fits into the larger picture,” says 
Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist at the 


Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “How 
do you make this stuff?” He also suggests that 
if macros exist, they might require less energy 
to form than ordinary nuclear matter, raising 
the question of why there is so much ordinary 
matter around. 

Aiming low 

What’s more, adds Wilczek, established ideas 
about dark matter didn’t arise by accident. 

“Td be quite disappointed if the dark matter 
proposals that have evolved logically out 
of our attempts to improve our theory of 
fundamentals, and which seem so promising, 
turn out to be false trails.” 

Anne Green, a cosmologist at the 
University of Nottingham in the UK, is more 
pragmatic. “Macro dark matter isn’t perhaps 
as well theoretically motivated as WIMPs, 
or other particle dark matter candidates, but 
it’s not implausible,” she says. “It’s certainly 
extremely worthwhile to look for signs 
of macros in existing astrophysical and 
cosmology data sets.” 

Their discovery would certainly make a giant 
splash. For a start, it would mean the colourful 
cast of exotic particles previously invented 
and sought by physicists may well not exist. 

“If we are right, then this means the LHC won’t 
see dark matter candidates,” says lacobs. 

No one is calling off those searches yet. But 
rather than reaching for higher and higher 
energies with particle colliders, perhaps we 
should seek answers in bringing quarks 
together at lower energies to better grasp 
the nature of nuclear matter. Ultimately, this 
might reveal that the ordinary elementary 
particles we know and love can come together 
in some extraordinary ways. The familiar 
could be about to get very strange indeed. ■ 


Sabine Hossenfelder is a particle physicist at 
Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, 
and Naomi Lubick is a freelance science journalist 
Both are based in Stockholm, Sweden 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 31 





32 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



Circuit train 
your brain 

Whether you need to focus better, improve your 
memory or curb unwanted cravings, specific 
exercise regimes can fine-tune your mind, 

Teal Burrell reports 


UMPING iron to sculpt your biceps. 

Yoga poses to stretch and relax. Running 
to whittle your waistline and get fit fast. 
There are loads of reasons why it’s smart to 
exercise, and most of us are familiar with the 
menu of options and how each can shape and 
benefit your body. 

But we are discovering that there are 
numerous ways in which exercise makes you 
smart too. Many of its effects have been going 
unnoticed, but if you were to peer inside the 
heads of people who like to keep active, you’d 
see that different exercises strengthen, sculpt 
and shape the brain in myriad ways. 

That the brains of exercisers look different 
to those of their more sedentary counterparts 
is, in itself, not new. We have been hearing for 
years that exercise is medicine for the mind, 
especially aerobic exercise. Physical fitness 
has been shown to help with the cognitive 


decline associated with dementia, Parkinson’s 
disease and depression, and we know this is 
at least in part because getting your blood 
pumping brings more oxygen, growth factors, 
hormones and nutrients to your brain, leading 
it - like your muscles, lungs and heart - to 
grow stronger and more efficient. 

But a new chapter is beginning in our 
understanding of the influence of physical 
exercise on cognition. Researchers are 
starting to find more specific effects related 
to different kinds of exercise. 

They are looking beyond the standard 
recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate, 
aerobic exercise a day, for the sake of your 
brain. Are there benefits to going slower or 
faster? To lifting weights, or performing sun 
salutations? Whether you want a boost in focus 
for an exam, find it hard to relax or are keen to 
quit smoking, there’s a prescription for you. 


The first clue that exercise affects the brain 
came from rodent studies 15 years ago, which 
showed that allowing mice access to a running 
wheel led to a boost in neuron formation in 
their hippocampi, areas of the brain essential 
for memory. That’s because exercise causes 
hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein 
called brain-derived neurotrophic factor 
(BDNF), which promotes the growth of new 
neurons. The mice showed improvements 
in memory that allowed them to navigate 
mazes better. 

The findings were soon translated to 
humans. Older adults who did aerobic exercise 
three times a week for a year also grew larger 
hippocampi and performed better in memory 
tests. Those with the highest levels of BDNF in 
their blood had the biggest increases in this 
brain region. 

The idea that exercise helps to improve 
memory has been especially welcome given 
that the search for effective treatments for 
cognitive decline has been slow in progress. 
And it now seems that aerobic exercise such 
as running and cycling may help stave off 
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms 
of dementia. 

As the evidence for aerobic exercise 
accumulated, Teresa Liu-Ambrose at the 
University of British Columbia in Vancouver, 
Canada, began to wonder about other types 
of exercise. She has been looking for ways to 
halt dementia in people with mild cognitive 
impairment (MCI), a population of adults 
known to be at increased risk of developing 
dementia, and was especially interested in 
strength training, which has in recent years 
been added to US and UK government 
recommendations for physical activity. 

To test the idea, Liu-Ambrose compared 
the effects of aerobic exercise and strength 
training in 86 women with MCI. She measured 
their impact on two abilities known to decline 
as the condition progresses: memory and 
executive function - which encompasses 
complex thought processes, including 
reasoning, planning, problem-solving and > 



ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 33 


The ultimate brain workout 

Different physical exercises can bring specific mental gains, from improving memory to dealing 
with cravings or reducing stress 


LIFTING WEIGHTS 

Prefrontal cortex 

complex thinking, 
reasoning, multitasking, 
problem-solving 


SPORTS DRILLS 

Prefrontal cortex 
Basal ganglia 
attention, switching 
between tasks, inhibition 


YOGA 

Frontal lobe 

Insula 

integrates thoughts 
and emotions 

Amygdala 

fear and anxiety 

HIGH-INTENSITY 

INTERVALS 

Hypothalamus 

appetite regulation, 
cravings and addiction 



Parietal lobe 

visual-spacial 

processing 

Cerebellum 

attention 


AEROBIC EXERCISE 

Hippocampus 

memory 


multitasking (see diagram, above). 

Twice a week for an hour, one group lifted 
weights, while the other went for brisk walks 
quick enough that talking required effort. 

A control group just stretched for an hour 
instead. After six months of this, both walking 
and lifting weights had a positive effect on 
spatial memory - the ability to remember 
one’s surroundings and sense of place. 

On top of that, each exercise had unique 
benefits. The group that lifted weights saw 


significant improvements to executive 
function. They also performed better in tests 
of associative memory, which is used for 
things like linking someone’s name to 
their face. The aerobic-exercise group saw 
improvements to verbal memory - the ability 
to remember that word you had on the tip of 
your tongue. Simply stretching had no effect 
on either memory or executive function. 

If aerobic exercise and strength training 
have distinct benefits, is combining them the 



FEELING ANXIOUS? SAY "OM" 


After a running injury, Sara Lazar decided to try 
yoga. She initially rolled her eyes when the 
instructor touted the mental-health benefits, 
but after a while she realised she felt better 
able to handle difficult situations. She decided 
to look into it at her lab at Massachusetts 
General Hospital, recruiting people who were 
experiencing high levels of stress to attend 
yoga and meditation classes for eight weeks. 
They also practised at home for 20 minutes a 
day. By the end, brain scans showed the 
volunteers' amygdalae - brain regions that 
process fear and anxiety - had shrunk, and 
participants reported feeling less stressed. 
While it's not yet clear why, yoga's meditative 
aspect helps develop a calmer outlook, which in 
turn reduces fear and anxiety, says Lazar. 


way to go? To address this, Willem Bossers 
of the University of Groningen in the 
Netherlands split 109 people with dementia 
into three groups. One group walked 
briskly four times a week for 30 minutes; a 
combination group walked twice a week and 
strength-trained twice a week for 30 minutes 
each; and a control group did no exercise. 

After nine weeks, Bossers put the participants 
through a battery of executive-function 
tests that measured problem-solving, 
inhibition and processing speed. He found 
that the combination group showed more 
improvement in executive function than 
the aerobic-only or control groups. “It seems 
that, for older adults, walking only is not 
enough. They need to do some strength 
training,” he says. 

Immediate attention boost 

And these benefits extend to healthy adults 
too. In a year-long trial of healthy older 
women, Liu-Ambrose found that lifting 
weights, even just once a week, resulted 
in significant improvements in tests of 
executive function. Balancing and toning 
exercises, on the other hand, did not. 

The combination of lifting weights and 
aerobic exercise might be particularly 
powerful because strength training triggers 
the release of a molecule called insulin-like 
growth factor-1 (IGF-i), a growth hormone 
produced in the liver that is known to affect 
communication between brain cells, and to 
promote the growth of new neurons and 
blood vessels. On the other hand, aerobic 
exercise mainly boosts BDNF, says Liu- 
Ambrose. In addition, Bossers says strength 
training also decreases levels of homocysteine, 
an inflammatory molecule that is increased 
in the brains of older adults with dementia. 

By combining aerobic exercise with strength 
training, you’re getting a more potent 
neurobiological cocktail. “You’re attacking 
the system in two ways,” he says. 

The studies so far haven’t addressed how 
long the effects last, but preliminary findings 
suggest adults will have to keep exercising to 
maintain the benefits. 

Another approach is to start young, with 
findings that different types of exercise affect 
a child’s mental capacity in a number of ways. 
For example, if you want kids to focus for an 
hour - on a maths test, say - the best bet is to 
let them have a quick run around first. That’s 
according to studies that show a simple 
20-minute walk has immediate effects on 
children’s attention, executive function and 


34 1 NewScientist I 22 August 2015 



"Lifting weights helps improve complex 
thoughts, problem-solving and multitasking" 


achievement in mathematics and reading Mind over matter: 

tests. Letting kids sprint or skip about has the improving attention 

same effect. A brisk walk can also help children can help mobility, 
with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder The stick is optional 

to focus, although again it’s not yet clear how 
long the effects last. 

These findings should be used to make 


MIND GAMES FOR MOBILITY 

Moving the body can tone the mind (see main 
story), but could the reverse also be true? 

In other words, says Lindsay Nagamatsu at the 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, can a 
mental workout influence how the body moves? 

It is commonly assumed that everyday 
movements like walking and maintaining posture 
are automatic. But even if we don't consciously 
think about them, they still require a level 
of attention. 

This becomes more apparent as we age, and 
Nagamatsu's earlier work shows that older people 
whose minds tend to wander, or who score poorly 
on attention tests, are more likely to take a fall. 
Physiotherapy and exercise improve mobility, 
but Nagamatsu wondered if a boost in attention 
span could too. 

To test this, she used a computer game that is 
known to improve attention and perception called 
Music Catch. She got people aged between 60 and 
80 to either play this game for a total of 15 hours 
over five weeks, or another game known to 
help with working memory and reasoning but 
not attention. 

Before and after this she tested their walking 
speeds, a commonly used indicator of someone's 
risk of falling or being able to live independently. 

Nagamatsu showed that the Music Catch group 
ended up with significant improvements in speed. 
The game seemed to be particularly helpful 
because it required paying attention to multiple 
things at once, as we do when walking while 
carrying on a conversation, for example. 

And walking speed might be important more 
generally: "It has also been shown to predict 



morbidity and mortality in older adults," says 
Nagamatsu, "so I think that it's an important 
outcometo try to improve." 


decisions about the daily school routine, 
says Charles Hillman at the University of 
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who carried out 
some of the research. He agrees with current 
recommendations that children get at least an 
hour of exercise daily, but notes that it might 
be best spread over the course of the day. 
Because purely aerobic exercise keeps kids 
focused in the near term, giving them breaks 
to walk or move around every 2 hours might 
be the best way to promote learning. 

In contrast, exercise that is highly 
structured and focused on specific skills, 
such as for a sport or to improve coordination, 
hampers attention. A bunch of drills and 
rules may be too taxing for children right 
before a test or a situation that requires 
sustained focus. 

Instead, these kinds of specific exercises 
seem to build up attention span gradually over 
the long-term. In research yet to be published. 


Maria Chiara Gallotta at the University of 
Rome in Italy found that twice-weekly sessions 
of coordinative exercises, such as basketball, 
volleyball or gymnastics practice, over the 
course of five months helped children do 
better on tests that required concentration 
and ignoring distractions. 

The cerebellum - the finely wrinkled 
structure at the base of the brain - has been 
long known to be involved in coordinating 
movement, but is now recognised as 
having a role in attention as well. Practising 
complicated movements activates the 
cerebellum and, by working together with 
the frontal lobe, might improve attention in 
the process. 


Making sure children are physically fit 
can have lasting cognitive benefits too, says 
Hillman. He has shown that children who are 
fit have larger hippocampi and basal ganglia, 
and that they perform better in attention 
tests. The basal ganglia are a group of 
structures important for movement and goal- 
directed behaviour - turning thoughts into 
actions. They interact with the prefrontal 
cortex to influence attention, inhibition and 
executive control, helping people to switch 
between two tasks, such as going from sorting 
cards by colour to sorting cards by suit. 

Hillman focuses on children aged 8 to ii 
because areas like the hippocampi and basal 
ganglia are still maturing, so intervening at > 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 35 


a young age can make a big difference. And 
even small gains in fitness lead to measurable 
changes in the brain. In some of his studies, 
Hillman has put kids on year-long after-school 
fitness programmes. Many are overweight, 
and while they don’t lose much weight, their 
brains do change. They’re going from being 
unfit to slightly less unfit, says Hillman. “But 
we’re still finding benefits to brain function 
and cognition.” 

Adults too can reap brain gains from 
sporty challenges, says Claudia Voelcker- 
Rehage at Chemnitz University of Technology 
in Germany. Her research on older adults 
showed an increase in basal ganglia volume 
following coordination exercises that included 
balancing, synchronising arm and leg 
movements, and manipulating props like 
ropes and balls, but not from aerobic exercise. 

Surf yourself smart 

So why the added benefits? Such activities 
require an understanding of where things 
are in space, so one explanation is that they 
activate both the visual system and the 
parietal lobe, the part of the brain that 
integrates sensory and spatial information. 

Indeed, Voelcker-Rehage found that these 
types of exercise improved visual-spatial 
processing, required for mentally 
approximating distances - for instance, being 
able to assess whether you have time to cross 
the street before an oncoming car reaches you 
- more than aerobic exercise. 

Another explanation comes from recent 
research by Tracy and Ross Alloway, both at 
the University of North Florida in lacksonville. 
They found that just a couple of hours of 
activity of the type we often enjoy during 
childhood, such as climbing trees, crawling 
along a beam, or running barefoot, had a 
dramatic effect on working memory. 

This is the ability to hold on to information 
and manipulate it in our minds at the 
same time. “It prioritises and processes 
information, allowing us to ignore what is 
irrelevant and work with what is important,” 
says Tracy Alloway. “Working memory 
influences nearly everything that you do, 
from the classroom to the boardroom.” 

So what is it about climbing trees or beam 
balancing that is so beneficial? The researchers 
only found positive results when the 
activities were a combination of two things. 
They needed to challenge the sense of 
proprioception - the position and orientation 
of the body - and also needed at least one 
other element, such as navigation, calculation 


LET LOOSE FOR CREATIVITY 

Daniel Schwartz practises what he preaches. 
During our interview he is strolling through 
Stanford University's leafy campus, an activity 
that according to his research boosts divergent 
creativity - otherwise known as thinking 
outside the box. 

It is walking at a leisurely, everyday pace 
that does this, not at a speed that would be 
aerobically challenging or make you out of 
breath. In Schwartz's study - which he thought 
of while out on a walk - people came up with 
more unique uses for everyday objects when 
walking outside or on a treadmill than when 
seated. He even found that taking a walk has a 
stronger effect on creativity than IQ. And 
people continued to be more creative 
afterwards, suggesting a saunter before a 
brainstorming session is a good idea. 

Or, if you're more of a jitterbug, Peter Lovatt, 
a dance psychologist at the University of 
Hertfordshire, UK, suggests you "put on some 
music and start having a boogie", and the key is 
to keep it loose. After a session when people 
had to improvise dance moves, they came up 
with more creative answers to problems than 
after a structured dance session or no dancing 
at all. It seems that creative movements - no 
matter how silly - lead to creative problem- 
solving. In fact, the sillier the better: the trick is 
to move in different ways. So if you tend to 
move your arms a lot when you dance, focus on 
your hips instead. "Having a spontaneous 
wiggle - without any pre-planning - is really 
good for divergent thinking," Lovatt says. 



CID&TiE D 


Taking a stroll can 
get the creative 
juices flowing 


Chocolate lovers consumed half as much after a 
brisk 15-minute walk. For smokers, 10 minutes 
of biking reduced cravings" 


or locomotion. Basically, the advantages came 
from exercises in which we need to balance 
and think at the same time. 

A good example is surfing, says Alloway. 

“In order to even catch a wave, you have to 
pay so much attention to proprioceptive 
information or you slip off your board; you 
also have to judge the best position to be in 
order to catch it, as well as to determine if 
another surfer has priority to catch a wave.” 

In their study, a group who did yoga, which 
involves proprioception, but not much mental 
reasoning, didn’t see improvements in 
working memory; nor did a group merely 


learning new information in a lecture setting. 

The results were the same for children 
and adults. “The adults in our study showed 
improved working memory after just a couple 
of hours of doing playground-type activities,” 
Alloway says. 

The more we learn about the effects of 
exercise on the brain, the more different types 
of benefits are emerging, extending beyond 
cognition to changes in behaviour. 

One of the most popular fitness trends of 
the last few years is high-intensity interval 
training, which involves quick spurts of all-out 
exercise. Its sheer toughness is claimed to 


36 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



provide the same benefits as longer efforts 
in a fraction of the time. 

These workouts might have an extra 
advantage: short bursts of activity can help 
curb cravings. And although the tougher the 
better, they don’t necessarily have to be 
gut-bustingly hard. 

To test the effects of intensity training on 
appetites, Kym Guelfi at the University of 
Western Australia in Perth invited overweight 
men to come into the lab on four separate 


occasions. On three of the visits, they spent 
30 minutes on an exercise bike, but at 
different intensities - a moderate, continuous 
pace; alternating between intervals of high- 
intensity cycling for 1 minute followed by 
4 minutes of moderate cycling; or alternating 
between very high intensity, 15-second 
sprints followed by one really easy minute. 

The fourth visit consisted of resting for the 
full 30 minutes. 

Craving control 

After the most intense intervals, the men 
ate less of the provided, post-workout 
porridge and less food overall for the next 
day and a half compared with days they 
cycled moderately or simply rested. 

One explanation could be that the exercise 
reduced levels of the ‘‘hunger hormone”, 
ghrelin. This is responsible for telling the 
part of the brain that controls eating - the 
hypothalamus - when the stomach is empty. 
When full, ghrelin production shuts off 
and hunger wanes. Following the most 
intense intervals of exercise, ghrelin levels 
were lowest. 

If intensity isn’t your thing, you could also 
play with the thermostat. Guelfi and others 
have shown that exercising in the heat reduces 
appetite, while exercising in the cold increases 
it. Again, hormones like ghrelin or a small 
protein called peptide YY could well be at play. 

And although vigorous activity might curb 
appetite and stall cravings for longer, even 
moderate exercise can help. Adrian Taylor, 
now at Plymouth University in the UK, has 
found that short bouts of activity can reduce 
cravings for both sugary snacks and cigarettes. 

In earlier work, Taylor found that chocolate 
lovers consumed almost half as much of it 
after a brisk 15-minute walk as those that 
rested quietly. For smokers, 10 minutes of 


EIGHT WAYS EXERCISE CAN 
BOOST YOUR BRAIN 

IMPROVE WORKING MEMORY - surfing, 
running, climbing trees 
BOOST CREATIVITY - dance or stroll 
DE-STRESS -yoga 

IMMEDIATE ATTENTION - unstructured play 
LONG-TERM FOCUS - play sports 
KEEP THE BRAIN YOUNG - running, yoga 
CURB CRAVINGS - interval sprints 
PROBLEM-SOLVING - lifting weights 



moderate biking helped reduce self-reported 
cravings. Smokers’ brains were also scanned 
while they viewed images designed to trigger 
cravings. Following cycling - despite staring at 
pictures of cigarettes after being deprived for 
15 hours - the smokers’ brains appeared 
relaxed. Regions implicated in addiction were 
less activated after exercise, as if the tempting 
cigarette were no more meaningful than 
a pencil. 

It’s conceivable that exercise merely 
distracts from the urge, but studies show that 
cravings were reduced more following a short 
bike ride than after another distracting task 
involving mental arithmetic. 

It’s still early days, and while some of the 
studies point at possible mechanisms behind 
the benefits, other effects have yet to be 
explored. One theory is that certain types 
of exercise increase blood-vessel formation 
in the brain, and so keep it working well. 
Exercises that activate specific regions may 
bring more blood to those areas, possibly 
building new vasculature that improves its 
functioning, whether it be for better memory 
or better problem-solving. And doing 
something unfamiliar, like learning a dance 
step or balancing on a beam, could also create 
novel connections between neurons, Voelcker- 
Rehage suggests. 

What is clear is that these effects can endure 
well into old age, and it’s never too late to start. 
The hippocampus shrinks as we get older, 
leading to the typical struggles with memory. 
But aerobic exercise not only prevents this loss 
- it reverses it, slowing the effects of getting 
older. Voelcker-Rehage has found that the 
brain requires less energy to complete certain 
tasks after exercise. “We would say that points 
to the fact that the brain is more efficient,” 
she says. “It works more like a young brain.” 

And in a study looking at yogis that had 
been practising for many years, Sara Lazar at 
Massachusetts General Ffospital found that 
some brain regions were remarkably well 
preserved compared with those of healthy 
controls that were matched for age, gender, 
education and race. “The 50-year-old’s brain 
looked like a 25-year-old’s,” notes Lazar. 

If you’re still unsure which type of exercise 
to pick, there’s some overlap between the 
different exercises and benefits, so Liu- 
Ambrose’s suggestion is simple: “If you’re not 
active, do something that you enjoy.” The best 
exercise is the kind that you’ll actually do. ■ 


Teal Burrell is a science writer based in 
Washington DC Links to studies appear in the online 
version of this article at bitly/NSbraintrain 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 37 



GET 

LUCKY 


Microwave ovens, penicillin, 
Post-it notes, Viagra: the 
history of invention is full 
of chance finds. But can 
serendipity be learned, 
asks Bob Holmes 



I F YOU want to make petunias a deeper 
purple, you could just add an extra pigment 
gene, right? Wrong: the extra gene turns the 
flowers white. This surprising finding was 
made independently in the early 1990s by two 
plant biologists, Richard lorgensen in the US 
and loseph Mol in the Netherlands. Neither 
dismissed the finding as an error. They 
suspected they’d found something big, and 
they had: an entirely new way in which cells 
regulate gene expression, now called RNA 
interference. RNAi has since been the subject 
of a Nobel prize, has saved lives and promises 
to save many more. 

This is by no means the only example of 
good luck in science. Percy Spencer, an 
engineer at the US company Raytheon, was 
working on a radar set in 1945 when he noticed 
that a candy bar in his pocket was melting. 

That observation led, two years later, to 
Raytheon introducing the first commercial 
microwave oven. In 1976, chemist Shashikant 
Phadnis’s boss asked him to test a chlorinated 
sugar compound being studied as a potential 
insecticide. Phadnis misheard it as a request to 
'Taste” the stuff- a scary mistake to make in his 
line of work - and found it was extremely sweet. 
We now know it as the sweetener Sucralose. 
Viagra was a drug proving not so effective for 
heart conditions before someone noticed an 
interesting and highly marketable side effect. 

Examples like these show that chance plays 
a role, sometimes a dramatic one, in the 
progress of science. Yet how much do we really 
know about its contribution? Its influence 
would be easier to gauge if we could pin down 
how it shows up: is it like buying a winning 
lottery ticket - something that can happen to 
anyone - or was Louis Pasteur right to say that 
"chance favours only the prepared mind”? At 





least one academic thinks not only that 
Pasteur was correct, but that it is possible to 
train minds to be receptive to the subtle signs 
of chance. This September he will launch a 
course to do just that. 

Opinions differ widely as to how frequent a 
part chance plays in science. "There are not so 
many stories about serendipity. Basically, you 
have a couple of dozen, but in the scientific 
literature over the last 200 years there are so 
many discoveries from just plain hard work,” 
says jacob Goldenberg, an innovation 
researcher at the Arison School of Business in 
Herzliya, Israel. "If you tried to assess the ratio 
between serendipity-based discovery and not, 
I would say less than half a per cent were the 
result of serendipity. But we like these stories.” 


38 1 NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 





The 19th-century chemist 
William Perkin was trying to 
synthesise the colourless 
antimalarial drug guinine 
from coal tar, He ended up 
with a vivid purple 
compound: the world's first 
synthetic organic dye, 


Others think chance’s role is more 
significant. “Every decent idea iVe ever had, 

I had no idea about until 1 started doing the 
research and it didn’t turn out the way I 
expected,” says Harry Collins, a sociologist 
of science at Cardiff University, UK. If we 
underestimate the good-luck factor, it could 
be to do with scale. “I would think little 
surprises are there often, and big surprises 
are rarer,” says Michael Gorman, a social 
psychologist at the University of Virginia 
in Charlottesville. 

One reason for the divergent views is the 
difficulty in defining chance. All of life, after 
all, is a walk down branching paths, and the 
direction at each fork often hangs on chance 
events: having an inspiring science teacher in 


Inspired by the burrs that 
stuck to his trousers after 
hiking, the inventor 
George de Mestral went 
on to develop Velcro. 


school, an office mate who happens to know 
a useful tidbit of information, an experiment 
that improbably works out well. All of this 
involves chance; but it doesn’t necessarily 
mean discoveries happen by chance. 

One of the hottest areas of neurobiology, 
for example, is optogenetics, which allows 
researchers to control the behaviour of groups 
of neurons with great precision. While at 
Stanford University in California, Ed Boyden 
discovered a key technique in the field, the 
use of light-sensitive proteins from algae to 
trigger electrical activity in neurons. He and 
his co-workers (already like-minded - the first 
stroke of luck) had been thinking for years 
about using light to control neurons. Then 
they stumbled across the algal studies (more 
good luck) and decided to try inserting the 
genes responsible into mouse cells. 

“It kinda worked on the first try,” recalls 
Boyden, now at the Massachusetts Institute 
of Technology Media Lab. “Who would have 
known that these molecules from algae, which 
are very different organisms, would work in 
neurons? That was also serendipitous.” As they 
later learned, they were even luckier than they 
knew: the algal protein requires another 
molecule to work properly, and mammalian 
brains just happen to produce it for an 
unrelated reason. 

Even so, serendipity was only half the story. 
Controlling neurons is an idea Boyden and his 
colleagues were keen on; in Pasteur’s parlance, 
their minds were “prepared”. 

Perhaps the most iconic example of chance 
in science is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of 
penicillin. In 1928, a stray fungal spore landed 
in a discarded bacterial culture in his lab at 
St Mary’s Hospital, London. When Fleming 
looked at it weeks later, he saw a ring around > 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 39 




Roy Plunkett, a chemist for 
DuPont was working on a 
new chlorofluorocarbon 


refrigerant when he noticed 
that it left a slippery coating 
on its container, It now goes 
by the name of Teflon, 


the growing fungal colony where something 
had killed the bacteria nearby. That something 
was eventually identified as penicillin. 

Yet Fleming’s finding did not pop out of a 
vacuum. Other scientists over the preceding 
century, including Pasteur, had noticed that 
moulds inhibit bacterial growth. Fleming 
himself had spent years looking for bacteria- 
killing compounds and had already found 
one - lysozyme, an enzyme he isolated from 
the snot of a person with a cold. Fleming’s 
prepared mind connected the dots, but 
even so, it was another decade before other 
researchers, Ffoward Florey and Ernst Chain, 
figured out how to turn the mould into a drug. 

Discoveries like these are often called 
‘‘pseudo-serendipity” - the scientists knew 
what they were looking for but found the 
answer in an unexpected place. The writer 
Arthur Koestler vividly described such finds as 
“arrivals at the right destination by the wrong 
boat”. Taken to extremes, this approach can 
pretty much remove the element of chance 
from discovery. The inventor Thomas Edison, 
for example, tested hundreds of materials 
before he found the right filament for his 
electric light bulb, and pharmaceutical 
companies now systematically screen 
hundreds of thousands of substances looking 
for new drugs. When such an “Edisonian 
materials dragnet”, as Gorman puts it, turns 
up something useful, that’s a testament to 
hard work more than luck, he says. 

In contrast, true serendipity happens 
when researchers stumble across something 
entirely unexpected, as in the discovery of 
microwave heating or Sucralose. Ffere luck 
plays a much more obvious role - although 
every case still needs an alert observer to 
notice the anomaly, not discount it as an 
error and turn it into a useful result. 


Some examples, though, fall in between. 
Take the case of the scientist at the chemicals 
giant 3M who was trying to create a super- 
strong adhesive but ended up with a super- 
weak one. Years later, a colleague decided it 
was just the thing to stop place markers 
falling out of his hymn book in church. 

That inspiration spawned Post-it notes. 

This sort of accident turns out to be 
fairly common in the annals of innovation. 
When Goldenberg studied the origin of 



200 important inventions, he found that in 
about half of the cases, the old saying had it 
backwards: invention was the mother of 
necessity. “First they found the invention, 
then they discovered the need,” he says. 

That makes the final product not exactly an 
accidental discovery. It’s more a matter of 
finding the best way to play the hand you’ve 
been dealt. 

“It’s much easier to find a function for an 
existing form than the other way around,” 
says Goldenberg. “People are very creative 
when you have a form.” Fie points to the 
example of Vaseline, which has its roots in 
a dark sludge left over from oil processing. 
Only when chemists began looking for an 
application did they discover they could use 
the purified jelly to help burns heal. 

Luck clearly helps some technologies 
bloom, but its impact on the broader world of 
scientific discovery is unclear. No one seems 
to have made a systematic survey of scientific 
breakthroughs to measure how often chance 
plays a large part. 

Indeed, such a survey may be almost 
impossible to do properly, says Dean Keith 
Simonton, a psychologist at the University 
of California, Davis, who studies creativity. 
Scientific papers may not mention what 
inspired their findings. Besides, chance may 
be inextricably intertwined with hard work. 


40 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



making it difficult to weigh the relative 
contribution of each. ‘‘Even if we accept 
Newton’s falling apple experience as valid, 
how much of his Principia should be credited 
to serendipity?” he asks. 

Perhaps the most direct attempt to quantify 
scientific serendipity came two decades ago, 
when luan Miguel Campanario of the 
University of Alcala, Spain, surveyed 205 of the 
most highly cited scientific papers of the 20th 
century and found that 17 of them, or 8.3 per 
cent, mentioned some kind of serendipity 
contributing to the findings. This probably 
underestimates the true frequency, however, 
seeing as not every author is likely to mention 
their good fortune in print. 

Even if there’s little certainty about how 
common serendipity is in science, there is 
broad agreement that more of it is a good 
thing - if only because it leads to more original 
discoveries. “If you’re working on something 
where all you have to do is be smart and work 
hard, chances are somebody’s already found 
it,” says Boyden. “So we’re often trying to do 
things to deliberately encourage serendipity.” 

Boyden has made something of a cottage 
industry out of wooing Lady Luck. This 
autumn he plans to teach a course at MIT on 
nurturing serendipity, in which he will ask 
each group of students to systematically 
set out to revolutionise one area of science. 

“I think we’ve learned enough now about 
how to orchestrate serendipity that maybe 
we should teach it,” he says. 

Boyden’s first rule for making your own 
luck in research: list all possible ideas to 
pursue. That’s not as silly as it sounds, he 
argues. The trick is to subdivide the universe 
of possibilities into either/or options, and do 
it over and over again. If you’re looking for a 



In the 1930s, Karl Jansky, 
an engineer at Bell Labs, 
was investigating noise in 
transatlantic radio 
transmissions when he 
discovered that the static 
came from a fixed 
direction in the sky. This 
observation founded the 
field of radio astronomy 



novel way to image the brain optically, for 
example, you could either detect photons 
within the brain or wait for them to leave the 
brain and detect them outside. If you’re doing 
it within the brain, you could use either active 
electronics or a passive detector. And so on. 

He calls this approach a “tiling tree” because 
it branches like a tree and covers the entire 
“idea space” like tiles on a floor. 

Blue sky's the limit 

In effect, it’s an Edisonian dragnet for ideas. 
“You can subdivide into smaller and smaller 
categories, but you never lose any possible 
ideas. At the very ends of these branches are 
things you could try out.” That step is where 
serendipity might appear. 

Boyden’s second tip is to range widely. 

His own research group includes engineers, 
physicists, neuroscientists, chemists, 
mathematicians and more. This diversity 
increases the odds that someone will make 
an unexpected conceptual connection. In the 
same vein, it’s good to work on more than one 
thing at once, as this also boosts the likelihood 
of cross-pollination. This was a key source of 
Thomas Edison’s creativity, for example. In a 
study of the chronology of all 1093 of Edison’s 
patents, Simonton found that the more 
subjects he was working on, the higher his 
output of patents. 

A more controversial way to encourage 
serendipity, especially discoveries that open 
whole new fields of science, is simply to find 
the smartest, most creative thinkers and give 
them unrestricted funding to get on with it. 

That’s what used to happen at legendary 
research centres like Bell Labs, and still 
happens to some extent at Google, for 
example, which allows its engineers to spend 



Barnett Rosenberg was 
studying the effect of electricity 
on bacteria in the 1960s when 
he noticed that some of the 
cells had lost the ability to 
divide. The culprit was a 
by-product from a platinum 
electrode. We now know it as 
cisplatin, one of the most 
effective anticancer drugs. 


20 per cent of their time on side projects. 

Back in the 1980s, oil giant BP also funded 
a blue-skies research initiative with the goal 
of seeking out the very best scientists and 
funding them with no strings attached. “I had 
13 years of freedom at BP,” recalls Don Braben, 
who ran the programme and is now at 
University College London. “We had 10,000 
applicants and I picked just 37,” he says. 
“Fourteen of those won major breakthroughs.” 

That’s a lesson funding agencies still need 
to heed, says Collins. “It’s difficult to have a 
policy to encourage serendipity,” he says. 

“But it’s not difficult to have a policy to 
discourage it.” Winning research grants is 
now so competitive - with just 10 per cent of 
applicants getting funded in many cases - that 
researchers have to play it safe and go after 
results they know they can achieve, he says. 
More adventurous proposals, those that might 
stumble across something altogether new, 
tend to be too risky to gain funding. 

In essence, today’s system is a self-fulfilling 
prophecy: it doesn’t believe in chance and so 
chance discoveries seldom happen. Yet, with 
some enlightened thought - and a little bit of 
luck - that could be reversed. ■ 


Bob Holmes is a consultant for A/ei/v 5c/ent/st based in 
Edmonton, Canada 


MORE CHANCE ENCOUNTERS 

Is the era of serendipity over? Read in next week's 
issue how human ingenuity is increasingly being 
supplanted by machines - and how computers are 
even taking over our mathematical journey of 
discovery. Copies of New Scientists latest book on 
Chance, out on 5 November, are available to 
pre-order at bit.ly/ChanceBook 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 41 




CULTURELAB 


Ghosted in the 
fug of chronoslip 

You can lose your self in games, and even your life, finds Douglas Heaven 


Death by Video Gome: Tales of 
obsession from the virtual frontline 
by Simon Parkin, Serpent's Tail, £12.99 

man slumped in front of a screen 
is not asleep. 

Chen Rong-yu had been dead 
for nine hours. His arms were still 
in front of him, hands flexed into 
the shapes they had held over 
keyboard and mouse. '‘Like the 
pulp detective thriller in which 
the lifeless hand points towards 
some crucial clue, Rong-yu 's final 
pose appeared to incriminate 
his killer,” writes Simon Parkin. 

But Death by Video Game is 
not a whodunnit. Sure, there are 
several unexplained deaths, some 
red herrings, and a host of usual 
suspects. But for the hundreds 
of millions of gamers worldwide 
who don’t wind up dead, there is 
a more important question. The 
book is a whydunnit, says Parkin. 

Rong-yu ’s case sounds extreme. 
He had been playing League of 
Legends, an online team-battle 
game, on and off for 23 hours 
before resting his head for the 
last time. He is one of a handful 
of people who have died playing 
a video game since Space Invaders 
conquered the world in the 1980s. 
Why do video games inspire such 
monumental acts of obsession? 
Other pastimes can be equally 
absorbing. Yet we don’t hear of 
death by novel, or death by film. 


“Any activity that compels a 
human being to sit for hours on 
end without moving is, arguably, 
a mortal danger,” writes Parkin. 
You could die sprawled on the 
sofa in a box-set binge, or reading 
Harry Potter. But you don’t. Video 
games, he argues, are different. 

Already in Taiwan police are 
doing spot checks in cafes after 
10pm to see if any under-i8s 
are still there. The Taiwanese 
government is bringing in 
regulations on how long teens 
are allowed to play. Films have 
long had age ratings, but video 
games may end up being the 


"We don't allow customers 
to play for more than three 
days at a time, says one 
manager of a games cafe" 

first entertainment medium 
in history to attract legislation 
controlling how long anyone 
can interact with them before 
taking a break, writes Parkin. 

Cafe owners are also taking 
measures: dead customers are 
bad for business. “We have a 



system to prevent customers 
from sitting in front of the 
computer for too long,” says 
the manager of the Ingame Cafe 
in Tainan, not far from where 
Rong-yu died. They will now ask 
customers to leave. “We don’t 
allow any customers to play for 
more than three days at a time.” 

Fears about the dangers of 
time-wasting activities are 
perennial, of course. Parkin cites 
a Scientific American article from 
1859 about the dangers of chess: 
“Those who are engaged in 
mental pursuits should avoid 
a chessboard as they would 
an adder’s nest, because chess 
misdirects and exhausts their 
intellectual energies.” 

But for Parkin, one of the best 
writers around on games and 
games culture, the effects are 
way beyond moral panic. As he 
describes it: “We consume a 
book, but a game consumes us. It 
leaves us reeling and bewildered, 
hungry and ghosted in the fug of 
chronoslip.” 

Games take us out of ourselves 
to such an extent that we forget 
where we are. We lose the sense 
of time passing. We swap our 
normal lives for the power 
fantasy, the exotic, the elsewhere. 
“When Rong-yu ’s heart failed, 
he simultaneously departed 
two realities,” observes Parkin. 
He died in a corner of an internet 
cafe. And he died in a game. 

Rong-yu may have had a 
pre-existing heart condition, 
he may have suffered from deep 
vein thrombosis, he may have 
collapsed because of the poor 
quality of air inside the cafe. Or 
he may have been killed by a cycle 



of stress and release over a long 
period of time that elevated his 
blood pressure and heart rate. 
Many play games with the focus 
and enthusiasm of an employee 
chasing a promotion. The 
lapanese have a term for that: 
karoshi, death by overwork. 

But Parkin’s quest for the big 
picture quickly takes him on to 
the many ways in which video 
games are a part of life. This is a 
book about people, not games. 

We meet the arcade performers 
and the e-sports athletes. We meet 
the players who want to be better 
than everyone else and the players 
who simply want to fit in. We meet 
those seeking refuge and those 
looking for escape. 

We have loved games since 
the beginning. In the 1970s, 

Pong arcade machines proved 
so popular that their coin 


42 1 NewScientist I 22 August 2015 



For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culturelab 



The exciting potential of the video 
game fizzes on the restless screen 


mechanisms seized up. But 
we Ve come a long way in four 
decades. Now there are games 
for anyone, about anything: 
they reflect the human condition 
even more than novels or films, 
Parkin argues. Here lies their 
power, their compulsion. 

Parkin takes us out in London 
on a Saturday night. In a games 
arcade just off Piccadilly Circus, 
a crowd loiters around a machine 
with big speakers and a small 
platform. “They are not here to 
play,” he writes. “They are here to 
perform.” Dance Dance Revolution 
is an excuse for a dance-off- part 
West Side Story, part hopscotch. 
When the music starts, coloured 
markers flash in time, showing 
where you need to place your feet. 
The adept are worth watching, 
and know it. 

Public performance is now a big 


aspect of video games, in arcades 
and now online via YouTube and 
Twitch. “Video games are closer 
to music than film in this regard,” 
writes Parkin. “They allow their 
players to accent, to flex, to 
showboat, to be virtuoso.” 

And the “rush” generated by 
competition, by chasing high 
scores, is also a big part of the 
obsession. Like sports, games are 
challenging, driving players to 
strive for domination. They are an 
opportunity to measure yourself 
against others, and an outlet for 
aggression and rivalry. 

League of Legends, the game 
Rong-yu played, is one of several 
games to become a sport. Teams 
compete for million-dollar prizes 
in international tournaments. 

But you don’t have to be a pro 
to be gripped by the urge to win. 
“For some people, devotion to 


improving at a video game begins 
to mimic the unbreakable grip 
of substance addiction, if not the 
chemical dependence.” 

Parkin takes us to Baghdad, 
where military-themed shooters, 
with players taking on the role 
of a soldier to blast through their 


'A video game gives us 
the sense of being in 
control, of being the 
author of our destiny" 

enemies, are particularly popular 
with the generation who grew up 
during the Iraq wars. Mohannad 
Abdulla, a 25-year-old Iraqi, was 
taught how to use an AK-47 at 
school. “Shooting terrorists in a 
game is cathartic,” Abdulla tells 
Parkin. There is also little else to 
do. “Video games are the only 
viable entertainment we have,” 


he says. They let you have fun with 
friends, yet stay safe at home. 

Far from being loners, players 
make friends globally through 
games. “The social connections 
that they encourage, both within 
Iraq and beyond, have built 
empathy in ways that may have a 
profound effect on the way some 
young people view their place in 
the world,” explains Parkin. 

But the world view reflected 
in big-name games remains one- 
sided. Games spread a particular 
set of Western values. What 
previous generations picked up 
from Rambo, today’s kids learn 
via shooters like Call of Duty or 
Battlefield. 

For a very different form of 
engagement. Parkin introduces 
us to Ryan Green. When Green’s 
infant son was diagnosed with 
cancer, he decided to make a game 
about it. In That Dragon, Cancer, 
players experience what it is like to 
try to console a 4-year-old in pain - 
and fail. Baby joel cries and there’s 
nothing you can do but pray. For 
Green, games are a way to invite 
people in. “I want people to love 
my son the way I love my son, 
and to love my son you have to 
meet my son,” Green tells Parkin. 

loel died last year. His father 
is still making the game, now a 
celebration of a life as much as 
a study in human suffering. 

As a teenager. Parkin’s parents 
separated. Games gave him 
routine and direction when he 
needed it. “Literature is able to 
remove us from our own lives and 
focus on the hopes, dreams and 
conflicts of another,” he writes. 
“But only a video game gives us 
the sense of being in control, of 
being the author of our destiny.” 

Video games won’t save you, 
says Parkin. They might even 
kill you. But, as he writes, “the 
potential - that shimmering, vivid, 
endlessly exciting potential - is 
there, fizzing on the restless 
screen.” For good or ill, that 
potential is our potential too. ■ 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 43 



CULTURELAB 


Peering through the bars 

The 21st-century zoo is an infuriating, conflicted place. It is also amazing, says Matthew Cobb 


American Zoo: A sociological safari 
by David Grazian, Princeton University 
Press, $29.95/£19.95 

LIFE changes 
when you become 
a parent. For 
David Grazian, 
a cultural 
sociologist 
and urban 




ethnographer, it 
led to a major shift in his research. 
He had studied nightlife in 
Chicago and Philadelphia, but 
after the birth of his son, Scott, he 
found himself repeatedly visiting 
local zoos. It was there that he got 
the idea for this book, which he 
calls “a sociological safari”. 

Grazian became a volunteer 
helper, or docent, at some of these 
places. As well as being bitten, 
and defecated, urinated and 
puked on by various animals, 
he thought hard about the way 
that zoos are constructed and 
how the public interacts with 
the animals and exhibits. He and 


rather than a vet, who would 
kill sick animals, or cut the head 
off a recently deceased jaguar 
for a post-mortem, as Grazian 
describes, but I may be naive. 
National differences aside, the 
same contradictions prevail 
between commercial, scientific, 
educational and entertainment 
considerations. 

Grazian explores what happens 
when zoo managements follow 
the money rather than their 
mission, such as collaborating 
with US TV shows like Ghost 
Hunters. Ffe describes from the 
inside how a zoo can quickly 
degenerate into a “circus 
environment” if management 
makes the wrong choices. London 
Zoo’s recent experience with 
late-night drunken revellers - 
described in Grazian’s book - 
shows that such situations exist 
on both sides of the Atlantic. 

He also invites the reader 
to consider how animals are 
presented to us and the way 


“exotic” cultural symbols are 
added to give local flavour to 
enclosures - coloured Tibetan 
prayer flags adorning a snow 
leopard pavilion in San Francisco, 
and warning signs in Cyrillic 
script at the Bronx Zoo’s 
Siberian tiger exhibit are two 
very mild cases. 

It is a lazy graphic vocabulary 
that zoo architects are too quick 


"I am not sure that in the 
UK keepers would kill sick 
animals, or cut the head 
off a recently dead jaguar" 

to employ and we are too idle to 
challenge. The zoos, their visitors, 
and above all the animals, deserve 
better. After reading Grazian’s 
book, next time you visit a zoo 
you will think more deeply and 
look at the whole process - and 
your responses - with a different, 
more informed and more 
sophisticated eye. 

Accessibly written, American 


Zoo is light on sociological 
jargon - in fact, I could have 
done with more theoretical 
interpretation and a richer 
description, in particular when 
looking at how zoos developed 
historically and the recent surge 
in female staff in US zoos. 

It should be required reading for 
students of conservation biology, 
anyone thinking of working in 
a zoo and for all of us who visit 
these amazing, infuriating 
institutions. 

Grazian’s book is inspiring. 

He makes the reader repeatedly 
reflect on whether there might 
be better ways of educating the 
public and contributing to 
wildlife conservation. Thinking 
about such things should be part 
of what a zoo does: to my mind, 
if you do not leave a zoo confused 
and conflicted, as well as inspired, 
it has not done its job properly. ■ 


Matthew Cobb is professor of zoology 
at the University of Manchester, UK 


his son also visited 26 other zoos 
and aquariums around the US. 

In American Zoo, Grazian 
deconstructs the modern zoo. 
Although he is critical of the 
anthropomorphisation of its 
animals, his experience enables 
him to realise that it can help with 
teaching. When he shows giant 
hissing cockroaches to the public, 
calling one of them Charlie helps 
to overcome the fears of both 
parents and children. 

Some of the surprising 
stories in the book may reflect 
differences between US and 
European zoos. I am not sure that 
in the UK it would be keepers. 

In whose best interests is it to 
have polar bears in zoos? 


44 1 NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 


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Faculty Insider Feature, Part 1 


\tfehingtDn 

UnivarsltyinStlxiuis 

Faculty Positions in Biochemistry and 
Molecular Biophysics 

The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Washington University 
School of Medicine invites applications for several tenured/tenure-track faculty positions 
at the level of Assistant/Associate/Full Professor. Successful candidates will have estab- 
lished a strong record of research. Applicants seeking tenured positions must have a strong 
record of external funding. 

Outstanding individuals working in any area of biochemistry and molecular biophysics are 
encouraged to apply. The candidate’s research should be aimed at addressing fundamental 
questions related to molecular mechanisms of biological or biomedical relevance. Current 
research in the department spans a wide range of topics including computational biology, 
membrane proteins, molecular motors, nucleic acid / protein interactions, protein structure, 
enzymology and signal transduction. Additional information about the department is avail- 
able at http://www.biochem.wustl.edu. Washington University has a highly interactive 
research environment with vigorous interdisciplinary graduate and medical scientist 
training programs. 

Applicants should email their curriculum vitae, brief description of their research interests, 
and contact information of three individuals to the Search Committee at 
bmbsearch@biochem.wustl.edu. The committee will request letters from these individu- 
als as necessary. 

Completed applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis, starting immediately. For 
full consideration, applications should be received by December 1, 2015. 

EOE/ Minorities/Vets/ Disabilities. The School of Medicine at Washington University is committed to finding 
solutions to global health problems, including ones that affect minority and disadvantaged populations. 



Harvard University 

Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA 
Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology 


TENURE-TRACK PROFESSOR 


mm 


Position Description: The Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology seeks to appoint o tenure-track assistant 
professor in the open field of chemistry and chemical biology. The appointment is expected to begin on July 1, 2016. 
The tenure-track professor will be responsible for teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

Basic Qualifications: Doctorate or terminal degree in chemistry or related discipline required by the time the 
appointment begins. 

Additional Qualifications: Demonstrated excellence in teaching is desired. 

Special Instructions: Please submit the following materials through the ARIeS portal (http://academicpositions. 
harvard.edu/postings/6320). Applications must be submitted no later than October 1 5, 201 5. 

1 . Cover letter 

2. Curriculum Vitae 

3. Teaching statement (describing teaching approach and philosophy) 

4. Outline of future research plans 

5. Names and contact information of 3-5 references (three letters of recommendation are required, and the 
application is complete only when all three letters have been submitted) 

6. List of publications 

Harvard is an equal opportunity employer and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment 
without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability status, 
protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law. 

Contact Information: Helen Schwickrath, Search Administrator, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, 
Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, 12 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Phone: (617) 496-8190. 
Contact Email: Helen@chemistry.harvard.edu 



A career in science 
it’s not always 
what you think 


From movie advisor to science 
festival director, where will your 
science career take you? 


NewSdenUstiobs 


newscientist.com/jobs 


46 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 




Faculty Insider Feature, Part 1 



I SCHOOL OF 

MEDICINE 

Knowledge that will change your world 

The University of Alabama at Birmingham 


BIOCHEMICAL GENETICIST 
Department of Genetics 


The UAB Department of Genetics seeks applicants for a faculty position 
in the field of biochemical genetics. The Department of Genetics has an es- 
tablished biochemical genetics program consisting of clinical diagnostic and 
laboratories, and a clinical consultation service. Faculty rank will be Assistant 
or Associate Professor and maybe either tenure or non- tenure earning. UAB 
faculty appointment and compensation are commensurate with qualifica- 
tions and experience. Qualified candidates will have M.D. and/or Ph.D. cre- 
dentials, and be board certified in Clinical Biochemical Genetics or Medical 
Biochemical Genetics. 

This individual will be Director of the Biochemical Genetics Taboratory 
and will also be responsible for teaching, research and/or clinical pursuits. 
Prior experience should include managing and interpreting biochemical lab 
results including standard biochemical testing and lysosomal disease screen- 
ing and testing. Applicants with research interests will have demonstrated 
ability to conduct significant independent research, and a successful track 
record of grant funding. 

UAB is an Equal Opportunity/ Affirmative Action Employer committed 
to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in 
which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irre- 
spective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, 
gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orienta- 
tion. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities 
and veterans. 

A pre-employment background investigation is performed on candi- 
dates selected for employment. 

The University of Alabama at Birmingham offers an excellent benefits 
package including medical/dental insurance and dependent tuition. Inter- 
ested applicants please send curriculum vitae including references, and a de- 
scription of your teaching, clinical or research portfolio to: 

Bruce R. Korf M.D., Ph.D. 

Professor and Chairman 

c/o Dee Blakely-Stoudermire 

UAB Department of Genetics 

Birmingham, AL 35294-0024 

dblakelv(5)uab.edu 


NewScientist Connect 


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Connect - there are plenty to choose from. 


Meet like-minded people who share similar 
Interests to you -- whether you*re iooking for 
iove^ or just to meet someone on the same 
waveiength, no matter where you are in the 
world. 


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22 August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 47 



Faculty Insider Feature, Part 1 



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Faculty Insider Feature, Part 1 


Kansas State 

UNIVERSITY 

RESEARCH ASSOCIATE 
KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY 
DEPARTMENT OF PHYSICS 

The PER group at Kansas State University invites applications for a research and teaching postdoc in 
physics education research to start in Fall 2015. You will work with our team on issues of enculturation 
and assessment across the four-year physics curriculum, looking at how students make connections 
across coursework and how to promote good teaching. Additionally, you will teach in introductory 
physics classes and contribute to mentoring graduate students and undergraduate researchers. 

You must have earned a PhD or EdD in physics, science education, or a related field by the date 
of appointment and be eligible to teach physics courses. You will be given preference if you have 
completed a dissertation in qualitative or quantitative physics or science education research. The 
successful candidate will demonstrate outstanding teaching and mentoring skills, excellent writing 
skills, and the ability to work collaboratively with diverse students, researchers, faculty, and staff. 

The initial appointment will be for one year with a possible second year term appointment contingent 
upon performance and availability of funding. 

The PER group at KSU has two faculty members, two postdocs, five graduate students, and three 
undergraduates, as well as faculty affiliates in physics and other STEM fields. The Physics Department 
is a friendly and supportive environment for PERers. Manhattan is a vibrant and affordable community 
situated in the beautiful Flint Hills region of Kansas. 

Candidates should submit a packet including: a letter of application; vita including a list of publications; 
and a research statement describing the candidate’s relevant background, interests in physics or 
science education research, and the relation of the position to the candidate's long-term goals. Send 
your packet to the PER group's search email, pergsearch@phys.ksu.edu, in PDF format. You should 
also arrange for three letters of reference to be sent to the above address. If you have questions about 
the position, the research group, or the institution, contact Dr. Elbe Sayre at esayre@ksu.edu. 

Screening of applications will begin August 15, 2015 and continue until position is filled. 


Kansas State University is an Equai Opportunity Em pi oyer of individuais 
with disabiiities and protected veterans. Background check required. 


You b 
KidsD 
Finding 
the 

answers 



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Join our acclaimed research team and realize your greatest goals 
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THE U N I y E RS ITY 

Wisconsin 

MADISON 


MANAGING DIRECTOR 

Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology PVL 83199 


The Department of Chemistry of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is recruiting for a 
Managing Director in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN.) The Director works 
with the Center Director and the CSN Executive Committee and is responsible for actively 
directing and coordinating scientific research and additional integrative activities at multiple 
institutions to achieve the center’s goals. A Ph.D. in Chemistry or related field experience is 
required. This is a full-time position with an anticipated beginning date of October 1, 2015. 
There will be a minimum twelve-month evaluation period. 

Specific duties of the Director may include: Overseeing general operation of the center; 
establishing and implementing center-wide policies and procedures that will maximize the 
effectiveness of the center’s scientific objectives and associated integrative activities; oversee 
center-wide finances (including multiple sub-contracts) and develop financial plans for the 
center; ensure that Center programs and activities are compliant with federal/ state regulations; 
interface directly with federal agency personnel to meet reporting requirements and to 
communicate the center’s scientific progress and objectives. This will include identifying high- 
impact scientific results and translating into language appropriate for program managers and 
policymakers. 

For additional information, please go to: 

http://www.ohr. wisc.edu/Weblisting/External/PVLSummary.aspx?pvl_num=83199 
Additional information on the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology is available at 
http://susnano.chem.wisc.edu 

Please submit a letter of interest, curriculum vita and 3 references referring to PVL 83199 to 
Dennis Reece at the Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1101 
University Ave., Madison, Wisconsin 53706-1322. 

To guarantee full consideration, all materials must be received by September 15, 2015. 

The University of Wisconsin is an equal opportunity and affirmative action employer; 
applications from qualified women and minority candidates are encouraged. Unless 
confidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding the identity of the applicant 
must be released on request and there are deadlines for disclosure. Finalists cannot be 
guaranteed confidentiality. A background check may be required prior to employment 





M l Q A COMPLEX SYSTEMS 

I Lull UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN 


ASSISTANT PROFESSOR in Complex Systems 

The Center for the Study of Complex Systems (CSCS) at the University 
of Michigan invites applications for a tenure-track position of Assistant 
Professor of Complex Systems. Candidates at a more senior-level will also 
be considered. The appointment will begin September 1, 2016. This is a 
University-year appointment. Information about the Center can be found here: 
http://www.lsa.umich.edu/cscs. 

Required Qualifications 

Candidates must have a demonstrated research agenda focusing on complex 
systems. This may involve theoretical or applied research on complexity, 
including (but not limited to) mathematical and computational models in areas 
such as networks, computation, emergence, large events and robustness or 
applications where complexity lies at the core such as quantitative modeling 
of social systems, soft condensed matter physics, evolutionary or ecological 
dynamics, epidemiology and disease transmission, artificial life, neuroscience, 
and cognition. Preference will be given to candidates with a track record of 
working across disciplines. 

How to Apply 

All application materials must be uploaded onto this website: 

https://complexsystems-lsa.applicantstack.eom/x/apply/a2guio5y9cxr 

The position is based in CSCS but will be a joint appointment with another 
department. In the cover letter, candidates should identify one or more partner 
departments at the University of Michigan suitable for such a joint appointment. 
Applicants must submit: a current CV, statement of current and future research 
plans, a statement of teaching philosophy and experience, evidence of 
teaching excellence (if any) and one writing sample. At least three letters of 
recommendation are required and must be uploaded onto the same website. 
Applications will be reviewed starting October 1, 2015. Applications will be 
accepted until the position is filled. 

Women and minority candidates are encouraged to apply. The University of Michigan is an equal 
opportunity/affirmative action empioyer and is supportive of the needs of dual career coupies. 


ZZ August 2015 | NewScientist 1 49 







The Association for Women in Science 


Join our community of over 20,000 
women and men working in STEM fields. 





Faculty Insider Feature, Part 1 



RADCLIFFE INSTITUTE 
FOR ADVANCED STUDY 
HARVARD U NIVERSITY 


Academic Fellowships 

The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program at Harvard University 
welcomes fellowship applications in natural sciences and 
mathematics. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study provides 
scientists the time and space to pursue their career's best 
work. At Radcliffe you will have the opportunity to challenge 
yourself. Meet and explore the work of colleagues in other 
fields. Take advantage of Harvard's many resources, including 
the extensive library system. Radcliffe Institute Fellowship 
Program invites applications from people of all genders, and 
from all countries. We seek to build a diverse fellowship program. 

Scientists in any field who have a doctorate in the area of the 
proposed project (by December 2014) and at least two published 
articles or monographs are eligible to apply for a Radcliffe 
Institute fellowship. The stipend amount of $75,000 is meant 
to complement sabbatical leave salaries of faculty members. 
Residence in the Boston area and participation in the Institute 
community are required during the fellowship year. 

Applications for 2016-2017 are due by October 15, 2015. 

For more information, please visit www.radcliffe.harvard.edu 
or email sciencefellowships@radcliffe.harvard.edu. 



THE UNIVERSITY OF 

CHICAGO 


Assistant Professor of Chemistry 

The Department of Chemistry at The University of Chicago 
invites applications from outstanding individuals for the position 
of Assistant Professor of Chemistry. This search is in the areas 
broadly defined as inorganic, organic and physical chemistry. 
Applicants must apply online to the University of Chicago 
Academic Career website. 

Inorganic chemists apply to http://tinyurLcom/nq59kgr, 
Organic http://tinyurLcom/oxvy7n8, and 
Physical http://tinyurLcom/py98uyk. 

Please apply to one search only. Applicants must upload a cover 
letter, a curriculum vitae with a list of publications, a succinct 
outline of research plans and a one page teaching statement. 
In addition, three reference letters are required. At the time of 
hire the successful candidate must have a Ph.D. in Chemistry or 
a related field. Joint appointments with other departments are 
possible. Review of applications will continue until all positions 
are filled. 

Referral letter submission information will be provided during the 
application process. 

All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, 
color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, protected 
veteran status or status as an individual with disability. 

The University of Chicago is an Affirmative Action / Equal Opportunity / Disabled / 
Veterans Employer. 

Job seekers in need of a reasonable accommodation to complete the application process 
should call 773-702-5671 or email ACOppAdministrator@uchicago.edu with their request. 


Schulich 

MEDICINE & DENTISTRY 

Call for Applications 
Chair, 

Department of Medical Biophysics 

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, at Western University, is 
inviting applications for the position of Chair in the Department of Medical 
Biophysics. 

As Canada's first Department of Biophysics, the Department has grown to 
become one of Canada's leading centres for medical biophysics research with 
approximately 20 primary faculty members and over 70 actively collaborating 
cross appointed faculty leading internationally recognized research programs 
in medical imaging, microcirculation, computational modelling, biomechanics, 
and cancer. The department is the academic home to both undergraduate 
and graduate programs, including CAMPER accreditation. It draws on a rich 
city-wide infrastructure incorporating two research Institutes, three hospitals, 
and five University Faculties. Research programs benefit from close 
collaborations between clinical and basic science faculty, with unique training 
programs in diverse fields. 

The successful candidate should have a demonstrated track record of 
leadership and research and teaching excellence with a proven reputation for 
effective interpersonal and administrative skills. The new Chair will facilitate 
collaboration and be expected to support the research, educational and 
interdisciplinary initiatives of the Department. The successful candidate will 
build on the strength and forward momentum of the Department's graduate 
and undergraduate programs and promote the development of new initiatives 
in research, scholarship and education. He or she must have a PhD, MD, DDS 
or equivalent, and will receive a tenured academic appointment at the level 
of Associate or full Professor. Candidates with a research program 
complementing existing research strengths are particularly encouraged to 
apply. The position of Chair is for a five-year term, renewable. 

Western University is located in London, Ontario, with a metropolitan census 
of 530,000. As Canada's 11th largest city, London boasts an extensive 
educational and health care community. With full time enrollment of 32,000, 
Western graduates students from a range of academic and professional 
programs. Further information about the Schulich School of Medicine & 
Dentistry and Western University can be found at www.schulich.uwo.ca, and 
http://www.uwo.ca. Western's Recruitment & Retention Office is available 
to assist in the transition of successful applications and their families. Details 
about the Department of Medical Biophysics can be found at 
http://www.schulich.uwo.ca/biophysics/. 

Interested candidates should submit a CV outlining their research, teaching, 
and administrative experience and interests, including future directions, 
together with the names and addresses of three referees to: 

Dr. Michael Strong, Dean 
Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry 
Room 3701A, Clinical Skills Building 
Western University 
London, Ontario N6A 5C1 
FAX: (519) 850-2357 
selection.committee@schulich.uwo.ca 

Please ensure that the form available at 

http://www.uwo.ca/facultyrelations/faculty/Application-FullTime-Faculty- 
Position-Form.pdf is completed and included in your application submission. 

Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. 

Review of applicants will begin after September 30, 2015. 

Positions are subject to budget approval. Applicants should have fluent written and oral 
communication skills in English. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; 
however, Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority. Western University 
is committed to employment equity and diversity in the workplace and welcomes 
applications from all qualified individuals, including women and men, members of visible 
minorities, aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, and persons of any sexual 
orientation or gender identity. 



Western 


ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 51 



www.NewScientistJobs.com 


PENNINGTON 
BIOMEDICAL 

RESEARCH CENTER 

LSU 

BOTANICAL T-32: 

Training in Botanical Approaches to Combat 
Metabolic Syndrome 


Postdoctoral fellowship on an NIH Institutional Training Grant 
entitled Botanical Approaches to Combat Metabolic Syndrome, 
seeks MD or PhD with strong scientific credentials and interest 
in animal or human metabolic research using botanicals. 
Fellowship provides up to three years of funding for training 
in lab skills and coursework necessary for establishing an 
independent research career. Must be a US citizen or green card 
holder. 


This training program is sponsored by the National Center for 
Complementary and Integrative Health (formerly NCCAM) and 
is located within the Botanical Research Center (BRC) on the 
campus of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton 
Rouge, Louisiana. 


SANF^^RD 


Sanford Research, located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 
is currently seeking a full-time Postdoctoral Fellow for 
the Chandrasekar Lab. 

The Chandrasekar lab investigates the role of actin 
associated proteins in cell and organ function. We study 
membrane trafficking and endocytic mechanisms in organ 
specific cell types and how actin cytoskeleton regulates this 
process. We use cell culture methods along with advanced 
imaging techniques to address some fundamental cell biology 
questions and extend these findings to organ function in 
mouse models. 

We are seeking highly motivated individuals with excellent 
problem solving skills. The ideal candidate will have a Ph.D. 
in molecular cell biology or related field, with some experience 
in microscopy/imaging techniques. Training in mouse models 
and mouse genetics will be provided. The position should be 
of interest to young scientists who want to apply cutting edge 
microscopy techniques and mouse genetics to study basic cell 
and organ biology and relate the findings to human diseases. 

To view a full job description and to apply, visit 

careers.sanfordhealth.org and reference job #231067. 

EOE/AA 



T32 postdocs will work toward enhancing research interactions 
between botanical characterization and molecular/genetic/ 
physiologic approaches in both the basic science and clinical 
research areas. Trainees working in the laboratories of our basic 
and clinical scientists will benefit from collaborative research 
with botanical scientists. Learning about multiple areas of 
metabolic research and how botanicals interact and influence 
metabolic and cellular pathways will likely promote creativity 
and inspire trainees to transcend the boundaries that limit 
current research. We want our trainees to gain exposure to at 
least two specialty areas (e.g., genetics of metabolic syndrome, 
molecular regulation of insulin action, biochemical botanical 
characterization, botanical therapeutics) as we anticipate this 
will encourage future interdisciplinary research efforts needed 
to understand this complex and challenging syndrome. 


* NIH requires applicants to be US citizens or have resident alien status for this 
training program. 


For more information please vis\h 

www.pbrc.edu/t32botanical 


gi^penningtonbiomedical 

renews 

^penningtonbromed 


i 


0 


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OFFICE OF 

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Visit our website at www.uab.edu/postdocs and select 
Postdoctoral Opportunities to view posted positions that interest you. 


52 I NewScientist I ZZ August 2015 



www.NewScientistJobs.com 


POSTDOCTORAL OPPORTUNITIES 


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Postdoctoral Positions - Birmingham, AL University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Ofh'ce of Postdoctoral Education 

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piitii Mntiile 


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22 August 2015 1 NewScientist 1 53 





LETTERS 


letters@newscientist.com ^ @newscientist ii newscientist 


EDITOR'S PICK 



I watched my local 
glacier collapse 

From Doug Scott 

In your article reporting work by 
climate scientistjames Hansen, he 
points out the risk of sudden sea 
level rise due to tidewater glaciers 
collapsing in decades ratherthan 
centuries (1 August p 9), 

His work has been criticised, but 
most of his critics don't understand 
the distinction between melt and 
collapse, They don't appreciate 
that glacial collapse has already 
happened to the Columbia glacier in 
Alaska and the Thwaites and Pine 
Island glaciers in West Antarctica, 

In 1977 1 moved to Valdez in 
Alaska, 27 kilometres from the 
terminus of the Columbia glacier. 

It was a large tidewater glacier, 

550 metres thick and with an area of 
1100 sguare kilometres - about the 
size of New York City and higher than 
the Empire State Building, Watching 
it calve 8 cubic kilometres of icebergs 
a day was a major tourist attraction. 

It attained further notoriety in 1989, 
when the Exxon Valdez ran aground 
avoiding one of those icebergs, 
causing a major oil spill. 

Now, just 38 years later, all that is 
left of the Columbia glacier is two 
small branches, 

I am a mathematician, not a 
climate scientist. Having seen my 
local glacier collapse so guickly, I 
share Hansen's concerns, 

Guildford, Surrey, UK 

To read more letters, 

visit newscientist.com/letters 


Giving birth 
underpressure 

From Sarah Snuggs 
Michel Odent raises some 
interesting questions around 
whether some women might find 
childbirth easier “in a small, dark, 
warm room, with... one midwife... 
knitting” (4 July, p 26). I would be 
interested to read any evidence 
supporting his theory, that 
women’s capacity to give birth is 
repressed by neocortical activity, 
one source of which could be 
other people present in the room. 

Wim Van Lerberghe and 
Vincent De Brouwere have 
estimated that 1500 in 100,000 
unassisted births result in 
mortality, while death rates can be 
as low as 5 in 100,000 in countries 
where medical intervention is 
routine. Meanwhile, a survey 
published in the British Medical 
Journal in 2010 found no evidence 
to suggest that low-risk women 
were given caesarean sections 
inappropriately in the UK. 

In our society women are often 
under immense pressure to 
deliver babies naturally, and 
many are led to feel they have 
“failed” if they do not do so. 
London, UK 


C-sections, choice 
and risks 

From Beverley Lawrence Beech, 
Association for Improvements in 
the Maternity Services 
You report concerns that an advice 
leaflet for pregnant women spells 
out the risks of caesarean sections 
while it avoids mention of the 
risks of vaginal birth (25 July, 
p 5). But the World Health 
Organization has stated that 
there is no health improvement 
for either mother or baby when 
C-sections exceed 10 per cent of 
births in a population. 

At the moment, the rate of 
caesareans in the UK exceeds 
25per cent. Those concerned 


about risks around birth should 
investigate the risks of C-sections. 
Surbiton, Surrey, UK 


The editor writes: 

■ The WHO’s position is 
contested, because of a lack of 
evidence that lower C-section 
rates are linked with lower 
mortality; in fact, countries with 
higher C-section rates have lower 
mortality. Aiming for vaginal 
birth may lead to an emergency 
C-section, which has much higher 
risks than either a planned 
C-section or a vaginal birth. 


From LLester Mannion 
It is still the general feeling in 
obstetric practice that a caesarean 
section poses certain risks to the 
mother but relatively few to the 
baby. However, choosing to 
surgically remove a baby from the 
uterus might carry with it some 
long-term problems. The baby 
misses out on the physiological 
environment created by natural 
labour: the complex cascade of 
hormonal events associated with 
the process of a contracting uterus 
and passage down the birth canal, 
as well as circulating oxytocin. As 
our understanding of epigenetics 
grows we could find a big impact. 

We may find that the butterfly 
wingbeats of our personal choice 
leave our great-grandchildren 
weathering a hurricane. But by 
then, of course, it will be too late. 
Swansea, UK 


Don't forget 
about heating 

From Christopher Jessop 
Your article on developments in 
battery technology was timely. 
(25 July, p 20). In the same issue 
your interview with Malte Jansen 
about German progress towards 
100 per cent renewable power 
(p 17) surely made any Briton 
long for a UK energy policy with 
substance. However, it must be 
stressed that we need a policy for 
energy - not just for electricity. 


When UK politicians and media 
say “energy” they nearly always 
mean “electricity”; yet heating 
buildings and water accounts for 
a large proportion of the UK’s gas 
and oil consumption. So to reduce 
our carbon emissions, we need 
massive-scale replacement of 
boilers and storage heaters. In 
rural areas we could switch to heat 
pumps. Converting buildings in 
urban areas to district heating - 
served by decentralised combined 
heat and power units - would be 
far “greener” than out-of-town 
power stations that dump their 
waste heat into cooling towers. 

Unfortunately, both methods 
are ruled out by investment- 
averse decision makers. And isn’t 
“austerity” an excellent excuse for 
choosing equipment that is cheap 
for firms to buy and expensive for 
householders to run? 

Marloes, Pembrokeshire, UK 


From Geoff Russell 
Malte Jansen seems proud of the 
fact that by 2050 Germany will 
reach the same level of clean 
electricity production with 
renewables that France achieved 
in about 15 years with nuclear. I 
thought climate change was an 
urgent problem? 

St Morris, South Australia 


The editor writes: 

■ We asked Malte Jansen about 
nuclear power, but his answer was 
cut for space. He said that the 
process of digging uranium ore 
and making fuel rods is itself 
highly energy intensive, and since 
nuclear plants can’t be turned 
rapidly on and off, they hinder the 
integration of renewable sources. 


We should seek real 
energy security 

From Emily Cox 

Paul Younger writes that energy 
security seems to have been 
“forgotten” by those who oppose 
fracking for shale gas in the UK 
(11 July, p 24). Unfortunately, the 


54 1 NewScientist I 22 August 2015 



n "Bad news should come from a person in a 

supportive environment, not a strip of plastic" 

Marie Ayres responds to our report of a test kit 
that could predict miscarriage (15 August p 13) 


article perpetuates the myth 
that reducing fuel imports 
automatically improves energy 
security. Energy security is a 
complex issue and cannot be 
simplified to metrics such as 
‘‘reducing imports”. There is no 
evidence that imported fuels are 
less secure than domestic ones. 

The vast majority of energy 
security problems in the UK have 
had domestic causes, for instance 
industrial action or the weather. 
Moreover, the UK has a highly 
secure imported gas supply, 
almost entirely from Norway, 
Belgium and the Netherlands. 
Initial attempts to frack, on 
the other hand, have led to 
widespread opposition and 
disruption, and hence costs 
and uncertainty for investors. 

I am not opposed to fracking 
per se. As Younger points out, 
concerns about groundwater 
contamination have very little 
empirical basis. Moreover, US coal 
production has recently dropped, 
suggesting that US shale gas may 
be exerting downward pressure 
on global emissions. 

Tax receipts from UK shale gas 
could benefit the Treasury. This is 


where the potential benefits lie, 
not in vague claims about 
“energy security”. 

Brighton, UK 


Government worse 
than climageddon? 

From Markus Eymann 
Robert Gifford missed one of the 
family of “dragons” that stop 
people thinking about climate 
change (ii july, p 28). It is fear of 
big government. 

The “logic” goes like this: 
climate change is a large-scale 
problem. The only institution big 
enough to tackle a problem on 
this scale is government. If you 
admit that climate change is real, 
you give government the power to 
implement a massive programme 
of social reorganisation to create 
a society that isn’t dependent on 
fossil fuels. 

A government with this kind 
of power is, to those who hold 
this view, more threatening than 
climate change. So they can’t 
admit that climate change is real 
or caused by human activity. This 


ideology is exemplified by the 
joke that environmentalist are 
like watermelons - green on the 
outside but red (communist) on 
the inside. 

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada 


There's a fly in the 
longevity ointment 

From Morag Perrott 
Clare Wilson presents the 
fascinating fact that the action 
of the diabetes drug metformin 
contributes to a longer life (11 luly, 
p 8). If older non-diabetics took 
the drug, they too could benefit 
from a lower incidence of heart 
disease and cancer. 

Great! What isn’t mentioned, 
however, is that metformin 
has been linked to vitamin B12 
depletion, a serious issue as it 
can lead to pernicious anaemia. 
Diabetics are known to have a 
higher incidence of damage to the 
peripheral nervous system and 
may be at greater risk of dementia. 

Personally I would rather take 
my chances with a diet low in 
sugar and refined carbohydrates. 


plenty of exercise and enjoying 
life as much as possible. 
Darowen, Powys, UK 


Talk about 
cash machines 

From Butch Dalrymple-Smith 
In your article “Slime-mould 
economics” you seem to express 
surprise that economic inequality 
is spiralling (25 luly, p 38). 

But when muscle power and 
brainpower are being replaced 
by machines, it seems obvious 
to expect that the machines’ 
owners will rapidly become 
wealthier than those whose 
labour is being replaced. 

La Ciotat, France 


Trees are the 
answer, again 

From Barry Cash 
Anthony Castaldo says we need a 
“cheap solar-powered device that 
can produce neat carbon pellets 
by the megaton” (Letters, lAugust). 
The machines are called trees and 
they store carbon in chipboard 
and paper. Instead of recycling or 
burning these products, I suggest 
we bale them up and cover them 
in thick recycled plastic - there 
seems to be quite a bit around that 
we don’t reuse. Then all we need 
to do is store the bales somewhere 
where they won’t be damaged. 

I suggest old mines or quarries 
in the UK, deserts elsewhere, 
Antarctica - or, as he suggests, 
the bottom of the sea. 

Bristol, UK 


Letters should be sent to: 

Letters to the Editor, New Scientist 
no High Holborn, London WCIV 6EU 
Email: letters@newscientistcom 

Include your full postal address and telephone 
number, and a reference (Issue, page number, title) to 
articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. 

Reed Business Information reserves the right to 
use any submissions sent to the letters column of 
New Scientist magazine, in any other format. 



ZZ August 2015 1 NewScientist I 55 




FEEDBACK 


For more feedback, visit newscientist.com/feedback 



VETERAN TV presenter Noel Edmonds 
is sleeping soundly at night after 
spending EZOOO on a computerised 
yoga mat that recalibrates his 
electromagnetic fields. Edmonds 
shared the good news on Celebrity 
Radio, where he explained that 
phones and Wi-Fi are covering us all in 
the wrong sorts of electromagnetism, 
assuring host Alex Belf ield "the 
biggest problem we have is not Ebola, 
it's not AIDS, it's electrosmog". 

That miracle mat is the EMPpad, 
which promises a suite of "profound" 
health benefits such as better sleep, 
reduced stress, and, alarmingly, a 500 
per cent increase in cellular energy. 

To achieve this, the manufacturers 
claim that the EMPpad "produces an 
electromagnetic pulse at an intensity 
and frequency which mimics the 
Earth's magnetic field". Handy for 
astronauts, we presume, but rather 
redundant for Earth-bound folk. 

READERS may recall that Noel 
Edmonds previously baffled 
^ audiences with talk of “cosmic 
I ordering”, a type of wishful 
5 thinking in which the cosmos will 
i fulfill your desires, if you only ask. 


This was accompanied by 
Positively Happy, a book in which 
the multi-millionaire “embarks 
on a journey to discover a 
scientific explanation for his 
enhanced state of well-being”. 
Edmonds concluded that the 
answer lies in a positivity formula 
of “scientifically proven elements” 
in the form of abstruse questions 
such as “Do you trust your tap 
water?” and “How well do you 
treat your villi?” 

You can even file your 
astronomical demands online at 
the Cosmic Ordering Site (bit.ly/ 
NScosmic). Much as Feedback is 
tempted to ask the heavens for an 
end to this sort of fruitloopery, we 
canT in good faith rid the world of 
something that brings so much 
genuine happiness to Noel 
Edmonds, and, in a roundabout 
way, to many of us as well. 

FOR some weeks, correspondents to 
the Letters page have wondered how 
the average lifetime number of sexual 
partners could be IZ for men and 8 for 
women, as reported in New Scientist 
(Z7June,p34). 


Duncan Gaskin is told by The Mirrorthat eating 
spicy food makes him "10% less likely to die". 
"Pass me a Korma," he says, "I might live foreverl" 


The Letters editor has put to bed 
these discussions, but Feedback is 
sure the assembled minds here can 
offer some ingenious hypotheses. 

David Parlett suggests that the 
figures make perfect sense if the 
number of sexually active men and 
women is mismatched. "If there 
were a community of IZ women 
and 8 men, and each possible 
heterosexual pairing occurred at one 
time or another," he writes, "then the 
women will each have had an average 
of eight partners and the men an 
average of twelve. Problem solved." 

MEANWHILE Anne Miller 
suggests: “Those who say that it’s 
impossible for men to have more 
lifetime partners than women 
neglect the implications of 
population growth.” Given that 
men seem to prefer younger 
women, and a growing population 
has more young than old, Anne 
reasons “it is mathematically 
straightforward for them to have 
significantly more lifetime 
partners than women do”. 

Finally, Rory Allen writes to 
identify two explanations for the 
discrepancy. The first being that 
men are more willing to take 
part in same-sex encounters 
compared with women, while the 
second is that men are simply 
more willing to exaggerate. In 
truth, says Rory, “these numbers 
tell us more about the inaccuracy 
of self-reported statistics than 
they do about sexual activity”. 

CHECKING our inbox, we find yet more 
ideas for renaming contactless cards. 
S.J. Courtney astutely points out that 
it would make more sense to name 
these cards for what they do, rather 
than what they don't. "Since the user 
simply waves them over the reader, I 
suggest they be called wave-overs, 
possibly spelled wavovers." 

Avoiding the dreaded combination 
of Greek and Latin, Mike Frederick 
writes with a suggestion that is 
"entirely Latin and appearing to 
non-classical scholars to fit the 
current vogue for portmanteau 
words". We rather like his solution: 
"nontact". 


THE use of pseudoscientific 
equations as an advertising 
gimmick continues to evolve. 
Feedback previously mulled the 
unexplained letters scattered like 
runes in M&C Saatchi’s “holy 
grail” of marketing (25 luly). 

Now Anchor Cheddar advances 
the field again with a “formula for 
richness” that seeks to quantify 
the value in our lives through the 
mysterious interaction of letters 
coding for attitudes toward 
success, family and perfection, 
among others. 

Happily enough, the equation 
finds that those with the richest 
lives aren’t wealthy financiers 
but married couples on middle 
incomes and other groups that 
fall into Anchor Cheddar’s target 
market. Fancy that. 



POLICE in Leicestershire, UK, have 
been investigating burglaries only at 
even-numbered homes, reveals the 
The Telegraph. The scheme is said to 
have reduced workload with no effect 
on convictions or public satisfaction 
(though Feedback wonders if only 
even-numbered homes were sampled 
in surveys on police satisfaction). 

Five more counties are eyeing a 
similar cost-saving measure. This 
presents an interesting dilemma for 
would-be burglars: if you suspect the 
local force has such a policy in effect, 
is it better to stick to odd or even- 
numbered homes, or spread your risk 
by alternating between the two? 


You can send stories to Feedback by 
email at feedback@newscientist.com. 
Please include your home address. 

This week's and past Feedbacks can 
be seen on our website. 


56 1 NewScientist I ZZ August Z015 


THE LAST WORD 


Last words past and present at newscientist.com/lastword 


Hazy blaze 

The worst sunburn I ever received was 
on a beach in Wales on a dull, misty 
day. I have holidayed many times on 
Greek islands in the height of summer 
but have never experienced sunburn 
like it. What could be the cause? 

■ I doubt that your questioner 
used sunscreen on the Welsh 
beach, through being lulled into 
a false sense of security. After all, 
the sun wasn’t visible and the low 
temperature would have meant 
there was less of a sense of 
burning. On the Greek islands 
however, 1 am guessing that they 
would have applied sunscreen 
liberally, and subsequently 
retreated to a suitable area of 
shade when too hot. 


"In 2004, researchers 
reported a 40 per cent 
increase in the intensity of 
UVB under broken clouds" 

Unfortunately for the skin, the 
ultraviolet (UV) radiation that led 
to the sunburn passed through 
the clouds. And the mist would 
have acted as a diffuser to ensure 
an even sunburn. 

To make matters worse, the 
sand and sea would have acted 
as mirrors, reflecting some of this 
radiation back up - possibly onto 
skin unused to receiving much 
sunlight. This was certainly my 
experience on a visit to 
lungfraujoch in the Swiss Alps: 
after less than an hour outside, 

1 had sunburn above my boots 
where sunlight had reflected off 


the snow and passed under the 
hem of my trouser legs. 

UV radiation comes in 
three bands. UVA is the lowest 
frequency, with UVC being the 
highest and most dangerous, 
but fortunately it is blocked by 
ozone. The one that causes 
sunburn is UVB light. 

In 2004, Australian researchers 
reported an increase of 40 per 
cent in the intensity of UVB 
radiation under broken clouds. 
Although counter-intuitive, this 
is just one of several studies 
suggesting that clouds enhance 
UV. Although the mechanism 
isn’t clear, the effect appears to be 
maximised when high-altitude 
cirrus clouds refract UV and this 
light is reflected by low- altitude 
cumulus clouds. Hazy conditions 
accentuate the outcome. 

UV-induced damage to DNA 
triggers the production of 
melanin, a photoprotective 
pigment that acts as a natural 
sunscreen to reduce further 
damage. Burning happens 
through high levels of exposure. 

Exposure to UVB depends on 
several factors: the time of year 
(it is higher in summer); the time 
of day (with a peak at solar noon, 
when the sun is highest in the 
sky); altitude (UV levels increase 
by about 10 per cent for every 
1000-metre rise in altitude); the 
amount of time spent outside; 
and latitude. 

All other things being equal, 
one would expect greater 
exposure in Greece, which has 
an ultraviolet index of three 
compared with two for Wales. 


The writers of answers that are published 
in the magazine will receive a cheque for 
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Send questions and answers to 
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Perhaps surprisingly, sunlight 
during the summer solstice is 
only about 20 per cent more 
intense in Greece than in Wales. 
But this can be trumped by 
cloud enhancement of UV or, 
if sunscreen is not applied in 
chillier climes, by the mistaken 
belief that sunburn is only a 
hazard on a sunny day. 

Mike Follows 
Sutton Coldfield, 

West Midlands, UK 


This week's 
questions 

DOUBLE BUBBLE TROUBLE? 

These mushroom “bubbles” 
developed about 15 minutes after 
I topped up a half-full container 
with more liquid soap (see photo). 
The fresh liquid seemed to bounce 
off the bottom of the container 
and then mushroom up. Are the 
principles of surface tension and 
drag outlined in earlier answers to 
“Bubble trouble” on 20 lune at 



1 


play here? Or could it be 
something else? 

Lloyd Tregenza 
Adelaide, South Australia 

CLOCKWISE 

Do all climbing plants such as my 
morning glory grow clockwise, 
and if so, why? 

Roger Pither 
Ottawa, Canada 

MAP LAG 

On ancient maps, India is usually 
portrayed as much smaller than 
it is nowadays. Sometimes it’s 
perhaps only half the size. Surely 
mariners of the time could judge 
distances, especially along a 
relatively even coastline. What is 
the reason for the discrepancy? 

T. L Threlfall 
Essex, UK 

SHARP TASTE 

Why do plants with berries often 
have thorns? Aren’t such plants 
sending mixed messages? Why 
would they want to repel animals 
that would eat their berries and 
spread their seeds? 

Marinas Lutz 
Vancouver, Canada 

POND SKIMMER 

I have a garden pond that 
suffers from “pea-soup” algae. 

A thunderstorm recently flooded 
the nearby road, overflowing into 
my garden and the pond. The next 
morning the algae had gone. 

What was in the floodwater that 
managed to clear the algae? 

Colin Carter 

Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK 



Question 

Everything 


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questions: unpredictable 
and entertaining. Expect 
the unexpected 


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